„Plastic waste becomes the new raw material “
• Circular economy is being considered also in other parts of the world,
• Plastic brings clear ecological benefits
• Chemical and material recycling can compliment one another
The EU is aiming at a circular economy. Do you notice similar efforts anywhere else?
Johannes Musseleck: We see in fact in other parts of the world discussions are taking place about circular economy. For example in the USA. There discussions are being held in many federal states and also in individual geographical regions. There are already many corresponding regulations in place there. In Asia as well, we already see similar efforts to install a circular economy. The EU has the advantage that we have here unified regulations for a large economic sphere with over 500 million people. What the EU decides thus reaches much further.
And what is the attitude of INEOS Styrolution towards the circular economy?
Musseleck: We are of the definite opinion that it must be developed and we feel committed to assist in getting to grips with the problem of plastic waste.
Basically, all of us that are involved with plastics must contribute to this. Because plastic is a valuable commodity which has an advantage over nearly all other materials. It is possible to implement very easy applications, very long-lasting applications, very safe applications. Plastic makes cars lighter and thus more fuel-efficient. It keeps food fresh and thus prevents spoiling. These are clear ecological advantages. But it is for us clear as daylight, that plastic does not belong in the sea and also not on the refuse tip, but rather it is such a valuable material, that it should ideally be re-used.
Will the use of crude oil in the manufacture of plastics be reduced?
Musseleck: When manufacturing plastics we have long been using crude oil as raw material for our products. If we think the circular economy through, plastic waste becomes the new raw material. That’s good for us, because it supports our aim of re-using valuable materials. But it also means processing the plastic waste, so that eventually a qualitatively faultless product results. This product must possess the same mechanical and hygienic properties as that made from crude oil. It must be developed so that it is, from a regulatory aspect, well deployed everywhere.
How long will it take for this?
Musseleck: Manufacture of qualitatively high-grade plastics derived from plastic waste is, of course, a very big development task. Depending on the approach, it will take years before we arrive at products with the same properties as the products which are today produced from crude oil.
What are you working on at the moment at INEOS Styrolution?
Musseleck: In chemical recycling there are several development approaches which are each very complex. We are currently at various stages of development. We are, for example, trying to convert polystyrene into monomers via so-called depolymerisation by the use of heat. That would then be the starting material for our production. We thus make styrene again from polystyrene. That is a method which enables us finally to begin production again from the beginning. That’s a very clear cycle. New products are created of the same quality, with the same specifications, with the same applications as previously with crude oil. Material recycling makes sense, but there are applications where it’s not possible to get any further with mechanically recycled material.
But the plastic waste delivered is usually not free of impurities.
Musseleck: We have to remove foreign matter. Making high-grade-granulate again from plastic waste requires many processing stages. In the case of chemical recycling, the entire repertoire of chemical processes can be applied. Unwanted residual matter for example can be removed by distillation. We have achieved this already very well at laboratory level and can, in fact, once more produce excellent polystyrene there without problem. So it is possible with technology. Now processes must be developed so that whole thing functions at an industrial level. That is the task with which we are all confronted in the coming years, to manage fulfilment of the required recycling quota.
Is chemical recycling superior to mechanical?
Musseleck: There are many approaches of how to recycle products. Mechanical recycling indeed makes sense in the case of certain product applications. Chemical and mechanical recycling are two methods which complement each other, since they facilitate various final applications. It is not a fact that one or the other is basically superior.
In both methods a clever design eases the task, or not?
Musseleck: Most definitely. It is immensely important, for example, to design a car and its various components so that at the end of the day, well recyclable material is obtained. On the question of product design, we are working together closely with our customers. We can tell them what they can do from a material viewpoint, in order to manufacture products which are easier to recycle.
What can INEOS Styrolution do to improve the image of plastics?
Musseleck: As a company, we work on solutions for the re-use of plastic waste. We thus show that something can be done. But improvement of the bad reputation of plastics is a task for the entire supply chain. We must here jointly commit ourselves and jointly send a message to quite different addresses. The message is that a circular economy can function well when everyone takes part. In this way we can raise awareness again of the advantages of this efficient material. There are studies which show that the global energy requirement would double if plastics were to be replaced by other materials. Even the CO2 emissions would considerably increase. No country would reach its climate targets without plastics.
In our world, plastics are indispensable. The downside is the littering. Carelessly discarded plastics products condense to form thick carpets, not just on rivers and seas, but also on land. A complete circular economy could prevent this evil and put the focus back on the benefits of plastics. In order for this to be a success, we all need to work together: processors, raw material manufacturers, mechanical engineers and recyclers, but also brand owners, end consumers and politicians.
VDMA will shine the spotlight on circular economy at the leading K 2019 trade fair in Düsseldorf in October and show how closed loops can work effectively. Throughout the process, stakeholders will be having their say in a series of interviews in the run-up to this international industry event.
About VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery
More than 230 companies are members of the association, covering more than 90 percent of the industry’s production activities in Germany. Ten percent of our member companies come from Austria, Switzerland and France. The German member companies represent sales of EUR 7 billion in core machinery and EUR 10 billion including peripheral technology. Every fourth plastics machine produced in the world comes from Germany; the export rate is 70 percent. Ulrich Reifenhäuser, Member of the Management Board of the Reifenhäuser Group, is the chairman of the association.