In its ‘Let’s talk about Chemical Recycling” series, the Plastics and Rubber Machinery division of the German VDMA association talks to experts and stakeholders active in the chemical recycling space. Ingemar Bühler, Managing Director Plastics Europe Germany wishes to make a least one thing clear: "Chemical recycling is competing with incineration, not mechanical recycling."
Mr. Bühler, how long will it be before chemical recycling can take place on a large industrial scale?
At present, there are about 140 chemical recycling projects worldwide. Most of the active plants are currently in pilot operation. Some companies, however, are already one step ahead. In Enningerloh, Westphalia, for example, the Carboliq company has a plant that produces an industrially usable pyrolysis oil from the input of an adjacent recycling yard. Other plant projects are also on the verge of reaching a new scale of between 40,000 and 150,000 tonnes of processed material per year. Two plants are currently planned on a large industrial scale. Lyondell Basell is planning a large plant in Belgium, and Dow Chemical is looking to build a large plant together with its partner Mura in Saxony. The prerequisite, however, is the approval of chemical recycling within EU law. Should this be the case this year, then the plant would probably be ready for operation by 2025.
This approval is by no means certain in Brussels, however.
The response of 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 a fair criticism, namely that despite great progress, the energy input for chemical recycling is much higher than that for mechanical recycling. Mechanical recycling is highly efficient: PET bottles, for example, can be mechanically recycled several dozen times until the polymer structures can no longer withstand further use.
In today's legislation, the idea is to burn these polymers that are past their usability stage, and to generate energy from them. However, the cost of incineration is high, and the process releases CO2. Instead of incineration, it would be much better in our view 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.
Where else does it make sense?
With chemical recycling processes, we can also process waste fractions where mechanical recycling processes reach their limits. A good example is car tyres. We can already recycle parts of tyres mechanically, but we can apply complementary chemical processes to recover the carbon and keep it in the cycle. In our industry, we are therefore convinced that this will definitely happen. If we politically hamper chemical recycling in the EU, it will happen elsewhere in the world, but I am confident that eventually we will have chemical recycling in Europe as well.
What makes you so confident?
The strict separation and interest groups are softening. It is no longer just the plastics manufacturers who are investing in chemical recycling. Increasingly, it is also large mechanical recyclers. In turn, there are also chemical companies building mechanical recycling plants because they want the carbon back in both ways. It is becoming increasingly clear that the combination makes perfect sense if you want to get rid of the big waste mountains and establish a real circular economy.
However, many mechanical recyclers currently still fear competition for input streams.
My fear as a medium-sized mechanical recycler would not be that someone might build large chemical recycling plants and buy waste fractions away from me. My fear would be that someone with sufficient investment power might build mechanical plants that are much more efficient, or that are directly competing with mine, and I'm pretty sure that will happen. I think that's a worry you can't take away from any company. Herein lies the task for the political arena to set the right guidelines. Put simply, that would mean that 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 in order to keep the carbon within the cycle for as long as possible; then you are actually on the safe side. That's all politics needs to regulate in the open market.
What should politics do and what should it not do?
It should seize the opportunity to lead the entire plastics system into a climate-neutral circular economy. Many of the technologies necessary for this, which are all already there, are not welcomed by politicians in many quarters. Our political culture - especially in Germany - does not welcome innovation. Instead, people focus on safety, on caution and things they know. But the transformation of the plastics industry, like other transformations, is a large venture. Politics must not slow down this change, it must accelerate it instead. And therefore, it must welcome innovation. The plastics bashing must stop. There is a good reason why plastic consumption continues to rise, namely because we can make many products more sustainable and recyclable. Major mistakes have been made in the past. We allowed plastic waste to be landfilled, and at the same time we have developed waste collection and sorting systems much too slowly. We could and should regret this, but along with that we should now turn the lever towards sustainability. The political rejection of plastic is not the path towards a climate-neutral circular economy.