Coming full circle

C&I Issue 1, 2017

The circular economy is an opportunity for new chemical industry materials and markets, said Cefic’s director general, Marco Mensink, speaking at the organisation’s General Assembly event in October 2016. ‘None of the proposals are possible without chemistry.’ Currently, the emphasis is on waste recycling, he pointed out.

The circular economy is also a topic that has been on the European Commission’s agenda for some time. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, an NGO committed to accelerating the transition towards a circular economy, the term is defined as an economy ‘that is restorative and regenerative by design, and which aims to keep products, components and materials at their highest utility and value at all times, distinguishing between technical and biological cycles’. The circular economy is about far more than just recycling. It is about redesigning products and processes to remove waste altogether.

Chemistry and the chemical industry is extremely important to the economy, and the technological advantage lies with developed economies, according to Benedetto Della Vedova, Italy’s undersecretary of state for foreign affairs and international cooperation. Opening the  Business of Circularity session at the EU chemical industry council (Cefic) General Assembly event, he emphasised that technology is the biggest driver of today’s economy, and it is essential to encourage industry to invest in technology and innovation. ‘Cooperation is essential, and opportunities to collaborate are very important,’ he added.

The EU Waste Framework Directive was launched in 2008 setting a framework for waste management, including definitions of waste, recycling, recovery. It explains when waste can be used as a secondary raw material, and distinguishes between waste and byproducts. The directive requires waste to be managed without endangering human health or harming the environment, for example without risk to water, air, soil, plants or animals.

However, continued waste generation is not a long term solution, The EU currently imports six times more raw materials it requires than it produces, noted Daniel Calleja-Crespo, director general, DG Environment in the European Commission. In addition to helping meeting raw material needs, the circular economy could boost competitiveness, and save energy and resources while creating new jobs and reducing industry emissions. ‘The chemical sector can be a leader and a winner in this strategy,’ he added.

Clearly, Cefic understands the potential of the circular economy, recognised Simona Bonafè,  a member of the  Progressive Alliance of Socialists & Democrats (S&D) in the European Parliament and rapporteur in the Committee for Environment, Public Health & Food Safety (ENVI), however, she also pointed out that ‘we have no alternative. We need to transfer from a linear model, keeping materials in the supply chain as long as possible.’

What is required is a disruptive change in business models, according to Jean-Marc Ollagnier, group chief executive – resources, at management consultancy Accenture. The paper, glass and steel sectors are already heavily involved in recycling, he said: ‘Molecules are next.’

The EU chemical industry has long recognised that waste is a valuable resource and promotes chemical safety as the guiding principle for managing byproducts. It also has a track record in waste management and its manufacturing processes are increasingly organised around concepts of industrial symbiosis, which is both cost-effective and beneficial to the environment.

The European Commission adopted the Circular Economy Package in December 2015, with proposed actions aimed at ‘closing the loop’ of product lifecycles through greater recycling and reuse – extracting the maximum value and use from all raw materials, products and waste, fostering energy savings and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This transition would be supported by funding of €650m under the EU’s Horizon’s 2020 programme, and €5.5bn from structural funds for waste management and investments in the circular economy at national level.

However, Europe’s chemical industry was disappointed by the European Parliament ITRE Committee position on the revision of the Waste Framework Directive expressed in October 2016, according to Cefic.

‘The Committee has inadvertently undermined the delivery of the circular economy,’ commented Mensink. ‘Chemistry is at the heart of delivering new solutions for Europe, from innovative housing insulation to ultra-lightweight vehicles. All these industries need state of the art chemistry to enhance their environmental performance. Instead, the ITRE Committee has committed to phasing out many of these key ingredients. It has also chosen to bypass Europe’s ambitious REACH regulation and instead seek to regulate the presence of chemicals in products by way of waste regulation. >We hope that a broader base of MEPs, Member States and the Commission choose a more balanced and environmentally sound approach.’

Cefic has described the current legal framework for managing waste in Europe – a key component of the circular economy strategy – as a patchwork quilt. EU member states have flexibility in how they apply the contents of the Directive, which has in this case led to fragmentation across the EU and lost chances to boost sustainability. Harmonisation would support industry to increase the reuse of waste materials where possible.

Cefic points out, for example, that what is classed as a useful reusable waste substance in one member state is sometimes classed as unusable in another, preventing companies from sending these materials across borders to close the 'loop', and also meaning potential efficiencies are lost. The red tape involved in doing so is also unsynchronised and causes uncertainty for industry as companies strive to ensure legal compliance.

If waste is to be regarded as a raw material, Ollagnier pointed out that regulations can help to recover the value that is currently lost but there is also an implication for product design. As he noted cars are used less than 10% of the time for moving an average of 1.5 people, and this alone offers many opportunities, something that was echoed by Bonafè. ‘It is a real business opportunity and chemicals can play an important role in producing durable, recyclable and reusable products,’ she added.

As Ollagnier pointed out the chemical industry is an enabling industry which can create innovative opportunities for its customers. ‘The chemical industry therefore needs to partner with downstream industries,’ he added, ‘as it is already doing in helping to save energy, but there are many other opportunities including the repair of products. The change from commodities to speciality chemicals in the European sector should help with this focus on performance materials.’

But the EU proposals for the development of a circular economy are more ambitious than previous proposals, noted Bonafè, involving not just a waste policy but an encompassing industrial policy, although a good starting point is a focus on waste prevention, the production of less waste with a focus on recyclable products. ‘This needs a change in business models and development processes,’ she added. ‘We need to develop a secondary raw material market, based on improved collection systems and a competitive market.’

EC policy makers have to provide the right legislative framework and facilitate the necessary changes, according to Calleja-Crespo. The regulatory system needs to be simplified to reduce the burden of bureaucracy, involving a re-evaluation of existing legislation – particularly REACH for example - and where regulations are needed, including the simplification of definitions, etc.

From the chemical industry’s point of view, incoming Cefic president Hariolf Kottmann, CEO of Clariant, emphasized that the industry ‘is creative and innovative and can therefore bring about the necessary changes, facing both the chances and the challenges, turning them into benefits’. He believes this can improve the competitiveness of the chemical industry with rewards for best practices.

Innovation in the circular economy

The introduction of a circular economy can be a major driving force for innovation as regards both methods for recycling and recovering materials and their reuse in new products. At the Cefic conference, a number of innovations were presented as examples, ranging from the recovery and reuse of concrete to vinyl products.

According to the European Council of Vinyl Manufacturers, through its ten-year voluntary VinylPlus initiative almost 2,544m kg of registered PVC have been recycled since 2010. Through VinylPlus, which has built upon the progress made by its predecessor, Vinyl 2020, the European PVC industry has committed itself to the establishment of frameworks for its sustainable development in EU28, Norway and Switzerland. Speaking in Florence Brigitte Dero, Vinylplus general manager, put this into perspective by pointing out that 13m PVC window frames/year are now recycled and therefore not going to landfill. She added that the flooring from the 2012 London Olympic basketball arena is included in the total recycled.

Richard Bourdon, project director at Move4earth, described how Solvay is looking to create the sustainable recovery of post-consumer waste, like silicone-coated airbag waste from the automotive sector, to recover technical fabrics to transform them into high quality polyamide polymer that can be used in new functional garments such as ski jackets. He noted that a new facility has just started up to deliver materials to the construction sector.

A former president of Cefic, Giorgio Squinzi, who is CEO of Mapei, an industrial group specialising in chemical products for construction, described how the group has been looking at the development of environmentally friendly solutions through its Re-Con Zerpo initiative for recycling concrete into aggregate that can be supplied back into the construction sector. He pointed out that 1m3 of concrete can be recycled into 2.3t of aggregate that can be returned to new concrete, ‘with zero impact’.

Food contact materials

The circular economy calls for higher recycling rates for all materials, including those used for packaging, for example, but this can present a major challenge for food contact materials (FCMs). The European Container Glass Federation (FEVE) has therefore welcomed the European Parliament’s report on FCMs, which calls for ‘better synergies between Framework Regulation on FCMs and the Circular Economy’. The report highlights the need to safeguard consumer safety by making sure that materials in contact with food are safe for health, whether or not they are produced with recycled materials.

FEVE believes that future recycling targets for all materials under the Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive (94/62/EC) must be accompanied by adequate control measures to ensure this safety aspect, but also to avoid the use or reuse of FCMs produced from recycled products leading to a higher number of contaminants and/or residues in the final product. A strong traceability of chemical intentionally used in FCMs is therefore required.

The latest data compiled by the FEVE show that the average glass recycling rate in the EU28 zone has reached the 74% threshold for the first time – 11.6m t were collected in 2014, up 3.5% on 2013. This means, however, that around 25% of glass bottles and jars are still being lost to landfill. A separate study, commissioned by FEVE and carried out by the Italian Stazione Sperimentale del Vetro research institute, has confirmed that glass is a so-called permanent material. This means that once it is produced for the first time and properly collected and processed at its end of life, a glass container becomes the primary raw material for new and endless production loops without any loss of its intrinsic properties, and therefore an example of the circular economy.

FEVE secretary general, Adeline Farrelly, points out: ‘We have no problem in recycling more and more glass because permanent and inert materials allow for this. That is one of the reasons why the industry is investing in closed loop recycling. Permanent materials that can be endlessly recycled without losing any of their intrinsic properties of inertness and permeability should be acknowledged by legislation and supported by policymakers.’

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