Raw material-independent and climate-neutral – innovations for the circular economy
At an innovation press conference on March 30, hosted by Plastics Europe Germany, the plastics industry presented innovations that drive sustainable circular economy. Leading experts of a circular economy with plastics outlined the paths to a climate-neutral industry and point the way to raw material independence and climate neutrality.
The following examples show where circularity is already lived:
Evonik presented how additives for mechanical and chemical recycling increase the efficiency of recycling processes and recyclate quality: A car seat made of just one plastic that fulfills several requirements at once, for which different plastics previously had to be used (the frame should be stable and robust, while at the same time providing support for the backrest and supports. In addition, car seats require an adjustable frame and thus, for example, rails and controls. Evonik has now achieved all this with just one material, which can be foamed, extruded, injection molded, and 3D printed. Unlike conventional car seats, this new seat is therefore much more recyclable.
The smartphone from the manufacturer Fairphone not only focuses on best recyclability, but already thinks along return options. The selection of materials with regard to the lowest possible CO2 footprint and resource conservation also play an essential role in the development of the phone. The back casing of the Fairphone 4 is made of plastic compounds from the Otto Krahn Group company MOCOM. It is characterized by durability and impact resistance. The polycarbonate, which is 100% recycled from post-consumer waste, reduces the Global Warming Potential (GWP) of the smartphone shell by 80% compared to the use of primary material.
In addition, there are many questions about the circular economy, which are answered below:
Why do we need a circular economy?
The circular economy is the only sustainable way of doing business for the plastics industry in the long term. This is because the linear economy based on the use of fossil resources and the consumption and consumption of goods is simply not sustainable. The fossil age is polluting the climate, breaking planetary boundaries, and thus endangering the Earth’s ecosystem as well as human livelihoods. Transformation is the foundation of a modern, resource-efficient and competitive plastics industry. Goods that are not recycled lose their value as valuable materials for new applications. This is another reason why they often end up in landfills or even in the environment, further polluting it.
Current studies point to the considerable greenhouse gas savings potential of recycling plastics, including possible negative emissions (see ReShaping Plastics study, p.72). What’s more, recyclable materials, such as plastic waste, which are recycled as secondary raw materials, are not released into the environment. Therefore, a circular economy of plastics contributes to solving the plastic waste problem.
What does the target picture of a circular economy with plastics look like in concrete terms?
The paper KreislaufwirtschaftPLUS (Circular EconomyPLUS), developed by leading experts for a circular economy with plastics, outlines three essential pillars of a closed plastic cycle of the future:
Extension of recycling & recycling: The recycling of all applications made of plastics must be maximized in a technology-open manner and optimized according to eco-efficiency criteria. To this end, waste must be a) minimized (Reduce), b) products reused (Reuse) and at the end of the use phase c) mechanically or chemically recycled (Recycle). In a functioning circular economy, there is no “waste,” but rather valuable plastics that can be recycled again and again, which are circulated and thus reduce resource consumption and protect the climate.
Product Design: For recycling, it is also important to design products in such a way that they are easier to recycle (e.g., made of monomaterials). One example from Evonik is a highly recyclable monomaterial toothbrush. In addition, the goal is not only to recycle products to a large extent, but also to use as much recyclate as possible in new products.
Non-fossil raw material base/feedstock: Since a 100 percent recycling rate is not possible in purely physical terms, new raw materials must also be fed into the cycle in addition to recyclate, even with the most innovative recycling. It is important that these are non-fossil-based, thus enabling a fully closed-loop economy that also makes us independent of raw materials in geopolitically uncertain times. Two feedstock bases come into question for this: 1) renewable raw materials certified as sustainable and 2) the utilization of CO2 by means of Carbon 2 Capture and Utilization (CCU) from fossil, biogenic and other point sources such as industrial plants (e.g. cement production, waste incineration) as well as from the atmosphere, combined with climate-neutral generated hydrogen.
Where are we right now – what about the advancement of technologies?
In Germany, 5.76 million t of plastic waste were generated in 2021. Of this, 3.66 million t (64.4 %) was recycled for energy, i.e. incinerated by waste-to-energy or as substitute fuel (especially in cement plants). 1.96 million t (34.6%) were recycled mechanically, chemical recycling methods were insignificant in 2021. Landfilling of plastics, at 0.03 million t (0.6%), no longer plays a role in Germany. A total of 1.65 million t of plastic recyclate was used in 14.0 million t of virgin plastics. This corresponds to a recyclate use of approx. 11.7 %.
Regulatory targets have been introduced to increase the use of recyclate. According to the current draft of the Packaging Ordinance, a mandatory packaging-related recycling quota of between 10 and 35 mass percent is to apply for 2030, depending on the packaging format. For 2040, the target figures are between 50 and 65 mass percent. The EU Single-Use Plastics Directive stipulates 25% in PET bottles by 2025 and 30% in all plastic bottles by 2030. In addition, the EU Commission has set a target of using ten million tons of recycled plastics in the manufacture of new products by 2025.
The biomass share of 13 % in the raw material mix of the German organic chemical industry, which is already used today, should be further expanded – depending on the availability of certified “sustainable” renewable raw materials.
The carbon cycle is completely closed by using CO2 with green hydrogen (CCU). The use of CO2 together with hydrogen produced in a climate-neutral manner, which is necessary in the future, has a very large demand for renewable electricity, the sources of which must be expanded much more quickly in Germany. So far, CCU has not yet played a role for the current quantities of plastics produced.
Why is chemical recycling needed?
Currently, only about one-third of all plastic waste is recycled. Better waste separation can increase the recycling rate. Smart product design, where products are made of only one plastic and can be better recycled, can increase the recycling rate. And innovations in mechanical recycling that recycle more and better than before can also increase the recycling rate.
All paths to more recycling and closed-loop recycling are important. But: We need more, our solution portfolio must go beyond that. Mechanical recycling is the most efficient recycling method. However, certain applications require, for example, composites that cannot be mechanically recycled and are used in wind turbines, e-cars, smart devices and medicine, for example. Products that must meet the strict requirements of food legislation are also not currently recycled. And even the excellently recyclable PET bottle can often be recycled, but not endlessly. This is because plastic consists of very long polymer chains. With each mechanical recycling process, these chains are shortened. Thus, after several recycling cycles, the material property of the respective plastic deteriorates. There is therefore a limited number of mechanical recycling processes that plastics can undergo. Subsequent chemical recycling can turn the waste stream back into virgin-quality plastic.
In a circular economy with plastics, it is important not to incinerate any of the applications mentioned. This is also shown by a recent JRC Technical Report of the European Commission, which compares the various recycling processes with incineration and comes to the conclusion that any type of recycling (among other things with regard to climate protection, defossilization and resource efficiency) is preferable to incineration (see p.44).
Doesn’t chemical recycling compete with mechanical recycling?
Mechanical recycling is superior to chemical recycling processes for many waste fractions, both from an economic and an ecological point of view. In mechanical recycling, the plastic is cleaned, mechanically shredded, melted and processed into plastic granulate. Ideally, this material can even be directly reused for the same products.
For the products that result from chemical recycling processes, further processing is necessary – pyrolysis produces pyrolysis oil, for example, and thus the process is far at the beginning of value creation or the production of plastics. From an ecological and economic perspective, therefore, chemical recycling cannot compete with mechanical recycling.
Doesn’t chemical recycling consume too much energy? The pure process of breaking down the molecular chains in chemical recycling is no more energy-intensive than established mechanical recycling methods. Scientific studies show that the energy consumption of waste pyrolysis, for example – a variation of chemical recycling – is comparable to mechanical recycling. Approximately 5% of the calorific value of the feedstocks in pyrolysis is required for the energy needs of the process, according to a new study by the renowned Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT). However, further processing of the breakdown products into new plastic pellets requires additional energy, so that the total energy requirement for chemical processes is actually greater compared to mechanical recycling.
However, it is also clear that we have the task of decoupling the production of plastics from the continued use of fossil resources. In other words, in order to defossilize the industry, complementary chemical processes are needed in addition to mechanical recycling. This is because it will allow more waste streams to be captured by recycling and enable the use of recyclates on a large scale in all plastics applications.
As the aforementioned JRC Technical Report of the European Commission points out, if mechanical recycling is not possible, even a higher energy input for chemical recycling is the better option for resource conservation, energy efficiency and climate protection compared to incineration.
Are plants already operating on a large industrial scale?
Investments in large-scale recycling plants for chemical recycling are picking up speed worldwide. In Europe, high investments are planned in the coming years. Plastics Europe member companies alone are significantly increasing their investments in chemical recycling across Europe: from €2.6 billion in 2025 to €7.2 billion in 2030. From 2025, plastics-producing companies aim to recover 1.2 million tons and from 2030, 3.4 million tons of recycled plastics with chemical recycling.
The first plants are already up and running in Germany and Europe, and more than 40 additional projects have been announced in Europe.