Helge Jaensch, principal scientist at ExxonMobil Chemical Europe
Helge highlights that society will need both advanced and mechanical recycling to successfully address the plastic waste challenge.
Helge and ExxonMobil scientist Gregory Biausque at ExxonMobil’s main R&D facility for Europe, the European Technology Center in Brussels.
Helge’s role includes identifying opportunities for ExxonMobil to collaborate with other organizations on advanced recycling initiatives.
Helge and Gregory work with a tool used to explore options to remove contaminants from plastic waste-derived pyrolysis oils.

The potential to make a difference is a really exciting aspect of my work. The plastic waste challenge is substantial. Plastic is too often ending up where it shouldn’t be – in the environment, landfills and incineration. My work is about finding new solutions to the problem.

I joined ExxonMobil 21 years ago and during that time, I’ve been involved in areas such as fundamental research, basic chemicals, chemical intermediates, and licensing. Part of what I look at in my role is better utilization of plastic feedstock: recycling plastic materials and integrating them into feedstock for new products. Recycling is essential to creating a circular economy. In addition, if we want to move quickly in advanced recycling, we have to maximize the use of and consider repurposing existing facilities – such as integrated refining and chemical facilities.

It is clear that society is going to need both advanced and mechanical recycling to address plastic waste. Mechanical recycling is the traditional recycling process. It entails grinding down used plastic and then melting the pellets to create new products. It’s a good option, as it’s typically less energy intensive. However, if the plastic waste is not suited to mechanical recycling – because, for example, it’s too contaminated – then you need to use advanced recycling.

As a company, ExxonMobil understands the urgency of the plastic waste challenge and we are trying to act quickly and effectively. There are a number of ways in which we can contribute. We can draw on resources including our knowledge of value chains, access to cutting-edge technology, and existing assets that afford us opportunities to move quickly towards large-scale advanced recycling.

ExxonMobil has the ability to turn new ideas into commercial operations reality relatively quickly – to a level that might take others a decade to achieve. And scale matters because society generates millions of tonnes of plastic waste a year and that waste has to be dealt with.

Collaborating with and learning from others is central to helping ExxonMobil drive the change that is necessary in this field. No one organization, no matter how large, has all the answers. Collaboration, both internal and external, is the name of the game. Much of what I do today is look at opportunities to interface with the outside world, making sure we’re interacting with the right people. I identify openings to work with other companies, experts, and academic institutions in the recycling space, ensuring those prospects are shared throughout ExxonMobil.

The world is trying to transition to a more circular future, but we’re at an early stage. We’re still figuring out which of the many new technologies that are being progressed could make a difference at scale. That’s another thing that really excites me and my colleagues; the chance to not just contribute to change now, but to develop opportunities that transcend the status quo. We still need new solutions and technologies. And we need to get to a point where we use plastic waste feedstock as effectively as possible, with as few greenhouse gas emissions as possible.

Of course, every job has its challenges and in my case that includes getting alignment on projects. In a large company with many interconnected elements, building consensus on the right avenue to explore next can take time and perseverance. A key part of my work is making sure the crucial information about the options a technology offers reaches the right decision-makers, to help inform their choices.

To me, this job is a unique chance to influence how, as a company, we’re approaching plastic recycling. Even if what I do is only a small part of the overall process. It’s about making a difference, which we all want to do. And if you can do that, especially at this time of incredible change, that’s very rewarding.


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