Way2K is a series of interviews from the VDMA in the lead-up to K2022. Here, Peter von Hoffmann, General Manager Business Unit Engineering Plastics Applications at Coperion, talks about ‘closing the loop’.
Mr. von Hoffmann, the circular economy for plastics is a declared goal of the EU, so, from an economic point of view, is it more of an opportunity or a challenge for a machine manufacturer such as Coperion?
It is clearly an opportunity for us. With circular economy, the importance of recycling is increasing. As a manufacturer of extruders, we see many new business opportunities in that regard. We have invested enormously in the recycling business in recent years, which has already paid off, and we are witnessing a steady increase in incoming orders in this area. For five years now, we have had our own team and our own product management focusing on this topic. We always learn something new, because not all recycling is the same. You have to differentiate. There is now a whole range of different and also new processes.
Could you give us an example?
Let's look at mechanical film recycling. This is challenging because films, especially those used in the packaging industry, consist of several layers of different plastics. These different layers can be used to improve barrier properties and extend the shelf life of food. From a recycling point of view, however, films are problematic, partly because the plastics have different melting points. There is a process whereby the edge trim of the films is collected and processed and then reintroduced into one of the layers when new films are produced. That's a mechanical way to recycle even at least partially a high-tech product like film. And with regard to post-industrial waste, this is a concept that produces no waste and is therefore a zero-waste solution, so to speak. We have already supplied our extruders to the first reference installations in Germany. The process is on the rise, also due to its energy advantage.
Will chemical recycling also pick up pace?
Absolutely. The idea is to break down any plastic into its original components by pyrolytically cracking the hydrocarbons. From this original form, you can then go back to the plastic via the refinery process. This is a trend that major plastics manufacturers in particular are pursuing. The process is also interesting if you don't want to or can't recycle a single-variety product. If you managed to close this loop one hundred percent, then you could theoretically do without fossil base materials altogether.
All this is already technically possible?
Yes, it is possible. There are already reference plants in place, as well as various institutes that optimize this technology. We have already sold facilities for this purpose. A large-scale production plant with twin-screw extruders, which are more efficient in this field of application at higher throughputs than other machines on the market, is already underway.
Mechanical recycling is complex and expensive. Chemical recycling is even more expensive. The whole operation is only worthwhile when oil prices are high. Who will invest in such plants, if it isn’t clear whether they can be operated economically?
Plastics manufacturers want to show that they are leading the way and increasing their share in the cycle. That's why they invest in chemical recycling; even if it may not make sense from a purely economic point of view today, it certainly conserves resources and reduces the carbon footprint. However, they also want to be prepared in case there are future political requirements for a higher recycled content in plastic products, and there is a lot to be said for that at present.
At the moment, it is still Europe that is driving the circular economy forward. Will the spark eventually catch on in the rest of the world?
If it’s only the EU focusing on circular economy, it is unlikely to be pushed through at a major pace. I am encouraged by the fact that the US has recently taken up the issue. The Biden administration has clearly set a focus here, and we can see that recycling is becoming increasingly important in the US, which wasn’t the case there a few years ago. In addition, many of the reactor manufacturers for chemical recycling are located in the US, as are many of the pilot plants. American companies together with European companies provide a much bigger momentum. Environmental protection measures are also growing strongly in China. We are absolutely confident that the issues that are currently being prioritised in Europe will very soon arrive in North America and then increasingly in Asia as well.