Raw material competition in recycling?

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"Chemical recycling competes with incineration, not with mechanical recycling," says Ingemar Bühler, General Manager at Plastics Europe Germany

Ingemar Bühler, General Manager at Plastics Europe Germany: "My fear as a mechanical recycler would not be that chemical recyclers would buy waste fractions away from me."

K Zeitung: “Recycling” section, 21 August 2023 –  There is enough plastic waste, but mechanical recyclers in particular fear that the chemical recycling propagated by the large-scale chemical industry will take away their recyclable waste. Ingemar Bühler, General Manager at Plastics Europe Germany, contradicts this in a current series of interviews conducted by the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, VDMA, under the motto "Let's talk about chemical recycling".

Mr Bühler, how long will it be before chemical recycling can take place on a large industrial scale?

IB: There are currently about 140 chemical recycling projects worldwide. Most of the active plants are currently in pilot operation. Some companies, however, are already a step further along the operational path. In Enningerloh, Westphalia, the company Carboliq has a plant that produces an industrially usable pyrolysis oil from the input of an adjacent recycling yard. Other projects are also on the verge of reaching a scale of 40,000 to 150,000 tonnes of material processed per year.

On a large industrial scale, two plants are currently planned. Lyondell Basell is planning a large plant in Belgium. And Dow Chemical wants to build a large plant together with its partner Mura in Saxony. The prerequisite, however, is recognition of chemical recycling in E.U. law. Should this come this year, the plant would probably be ready for operation in 2025.

But this recognition is by no means certain in Brussels.

IB: The accusation from politicians, both in Europe and in Germany, is often that chemical recycling does not work at all. That is simply nonsense. But there is also an accusation that is true: Despite great progress, the energy input for chemical recycling is much higher than for mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling is highly efficient; PET bottles, for example, can be mechanically recycled several dozen times until the polymer structures no longer allow further use.

In today's legislation, the idea is: we burn these no-longer-usable polymers and generate energy from them. But the cost of incineration is high, and the process releases CO2. Instead of incineration, we believe it would be much better to chemically recycle these polymers. In the best case, no CO₂ is released, and the carbon continues to circulate. Chemical recycling is therefore not in competition with mechanical recycling but with incineration.

When it comes to recycling, interest groups are softening

Where is chemical recycling still advantageous?

IB: With chemical recycling processes we can also process waste fractions where mechanical recycling processes reach their limits. A good example is car tyres. Parts of tyres can already be recycled mechanically, but the carbon can only be recovered and recirculated using complementary chemical processes. In our industry, we are therefore convinced that chemical recycling will definitely come. If we politically obstruct it in the E.U., it will happen elsewhere in the world. But I am confident that we will eventually have chemical recycling in Europe as well.

What makes you so confident?

IB: Strict separation and interest groups are softening. It is no longer just plastics producers who are investing in chemical recycling. Increasingly, it is also the big mechanical recyclers. In turn, there are also chemical companies that are building mechanical recycling plants, because they want to get the carbon back both ways. It is becoming increasingly clear that the combination simply makes sense if you want to get off the big waste mountains and establish a real circular economy.

Fear of competition for input streams

Mechanical recyclers nevertheless fear competition for input streams.

IB: My fear as a medium-sized mechanical recycler would not be that someone would build large chemical recycling plants and buy waste fractions away from me. My fear would be that someone with their investment power would build much more efficient mechanical plants or plants that compete directly with me. And that, I am pretty sure, will come. I think that is a concern that you cannot take away from any company.

It is the job of politicians to set the right guidelines. Put simply, the following would make sense: Everything that can be mechanically recycled must be mechanically recycled for as long as possible. Fractions that cannot be mechanically recycled must be fed into other processes that keep the carbon in the cycle as long as possible. Then you are actually on the safe side. That is all politics needs to regulate in the open market.

What should policymakers do and not do?

IB: They should use the opportunity to lead the entire plastics system into a climate-neutral circular economy. But many of the technologies needed for this, which are all already there, are not welcomed by politicians in many places. Our political culture, especially in Germany, does not welcome innovation. Instead, people rely on security, on caution and on things they know.

But the transformation of the plastics industry, like other transformations, is a big gamble. Instead of slowing down this change, politics should rather accelerate it and welcome innovations.

The plastic bashing must stop. It is true, of course, that big mistakes have been made in the past. Plastic waste was dumped, waste collection and sorting systems were developed far too slowly. We can and should regret this, but at the same time we should now turn the lever towards the future. The political rejection of plastic is not the way to a climate-neutral circular economy. After all, there are good reasons why plastic consumption continues to rise: Because plastic can be used to make many products more sustainable and recyclable. VDMA/mg

Note: Ingemar Bühler also makes a video statement on chemical recycling.

To read the article at K Zeitung in the original German, visit https://www.k-zeitung.de/rohstoff-wettbewerb-beim-recycling. For more information about Afera’s Flagship Sustainability Project, visit https://afera.com/adhesive-tapes-sustainability/flagship-sustainability-project/. 

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