Europe wants to be climate-neutral, and that can only be achieved by investing fully in circularity. If we want to achieve impact, and we do, the chemical industry must also embrace circularity. Chemical recycling plays a growing role in this and that requires companies to take action now. “Sitting still is not an option,” says Freek van Eijk, vice-chairman of Circular Biobased Delta.
Mechanical recycling is about sorting, cleaning and upgrading plastics so that they can be offered to the chain again as a raw material. The chemical composition does not change. The purity of the recyclate determines the application. However, there are limitations to mechanical recycling. We recycle the past: any additives such as flame retardants, stabilisers or plasticisers are also returned to the recyclate. Some of these substances may today be returned to the market due to additional environmental impact or under strict conditions (REACH regulations). After a number of mechanical recycling operations, the material properties also deteriorate. Even paper fibres are too short to be usable after five to seven mechanical recycling cycles. Moreover, products such as packaging or consumer electronics are not designed to be reused or recycled. As a result, even in the best performing countries (often in North-West Europe) at most half of all plastics produced are recycled. The rest does not make it back into the chain. Chemical recycling can provide an answer to this.
To do this properly, technology is needed that has proven itself commercially.
Van Eijk: “By 2030, we need to have achieved 55% CO2 savings, so time is running out. After that, we need to roll it out on an even larger scale and scale it up towards 2050.”
The start of a feedstock transition from oil as a raw material to waste plastics and organic residues or biobased raw materials in large quantities is not the only concern facing the major chemical companies in the coming years. There is also a renewable energy transition and – as part of both – a hydrogen transition. These are mega changes for companies like Dow, Shell or SABIC. “They are like supertankers, they don’t change course just like that. But when that finally happens, they are unstoppable and then suddenly it’s about large volumes and big interests: long-term investments of many hundreds of millions per project and billions of euros for the entire sector.”
“Each of those trajectories involves enormous complexity. No company can do it alone. It requires new coalitions between chemical companies, waste processors, governments, knowledge institutions and technology start-ups. The partnerships that you form now could well be decisive for your future success. And a start-up that manages to connect with a brand owner like Unilever Neste or Coca Cola or a chemical giant like Shell, Dow or SABIC, can scale up its technology globally.”
Circular Biobased Delta is the spider in the web in this respect and, as a triple helix organisation and neutral transition broker, connects the government, knowledge institutes and companies. Not an easy task, because it involves bringing together parties that each have a different mindset or interest, from start-ups that prioritise manoeuvrability and speed to chemical multinationals with their extensive decision-making processes and governments that prioritise social and environmental interests. However, legislation and regulations, often conceived in other times, impede a rapid transition. “It is like looking at new innovations and developments through old-fashioned glasses.”
Together with competent partners from the industry and the knowledge sector, Circular Biobased Delta brings the parties together. CBBD also works closely with other platforms, such as Green Chemistry, New Economy, and national as well as international clusters from Belgium, Germany and France. The foundation is supported by local, regional and national authorities and maintains warm contacts with the financial world and entrepreneurs.
Van Eijk: ‘Coordination in the chain is becoming increasingly important. We do that for example with our Chemical Recycling Network [https://circularbiobaseddelta.nl/focus-themas/projecten/netwerk-chemisch-recyclen/], in which waste managers as well as technology companies, chemical giants and the government are involved. It offers you, as a member, the opportunity to talk to others who understand what you are talking about at the desired level of knowledge. So, you can put yourself in the pragmatic world of waste managers or delve into the world of molecules and specs at PPM level in the world of chemistry. You must understand how regulations affect both worlds. That’s pretty special.”
On the progress made in integrating chemical recycling technologies into the value chains in the Netherlands, CBBD is organising a national summit in November: Chemical Recycling Summit. This event clearly transcends the Delta region and offers an opportunity for the cooperating clusters within Green Chemistry, New Economy to have entrepreneurs from their network who are involved in chemical recycling present their progress. Expert sessions will also be held to discuss the barriers they are facing and the solutions they are devising.
However, the challenges of chemical recycling also play a role on an international scale, in Flanders and the Ruhr region. This is why on 15 September CBBD is organising an international event in North Rhine-Westphalia: NRW-Dutch cross-border opportunities in Chemical Recycling. A collaboration with ministries, start-ups, knowledge institutions and the chemical sector, as part of the multi-day Circular Economy Hotspot Event in Bottrop. TNO, the Wuppertal Institute and 15 other organising partners will compare the situation in both countries. Where can entrepreneurs find each other and what are the differences? In the morning there will also be an exclusive Matchmaking Event, for which one can register free of charge before 8 September via: https://chemical-recycling-2022.b2match.io
Freek van Eijk: “If this goes well, we would like to organise a similar event with our southern neighbours at the end of this year. We will make sure that we focus on the national area, but also on where the dynamics are, i.e. the Ruhr area and the Antwerp-Ghent region; regions that are in many ways close to West Brabant and Zeeland, where CBBD has built up excellent contacts in recent years through the BIG Cluster, the trilateral agenda and Smart Delta Resources, among other things. This kind of investment takes time but pays off for the major system innovations that everyone is now facing!
Circular Biobased Delta was already on the front line of chemical recycling around 2015, with the establishment of the South Netherlands Pyrolysis Laboratory together with the Moerdijk Port Authority and Rewin. Since then, developments in the region have accelerated: Shell is investing in pyrolysis technology to provide the company’s crackers with bio-based naphtha within a few years, Neste and Ravago are planning the construction of a chemical recycling plant in Vlissingen, and the PyroChempark project is starting up, including the Green Chemistry Campus in Bergen op Zoom.
Chemical Recycling is an umbrella term for a number of technologies in which, by means of a chemical process, plastics are returned to the original building blocks of the material (polymers, oligomers (pyrolysis oil), monomers (e.g. styrene) and/or small molecules such as carbon monoxide and hydrogen).
Often 4 different techniques are distinguished:
- Solvolysis (dissolution, technically part of mechanical recycling)
- Pyrolysis (cracking)