The Magic Formula

Highly promising chemical recycling needs a boost

The magic formula

Key for recycling plastics on a really big scale

Plastics are almost everywhere in modern life. We need them to cope with many global challenges such as securing food supply for the growing world population, creating habitable cities and advancing new forms of mobility. The other side of the coin is the alarming amount of plastic waste: 4.9 billion tons of it ended up in landfills and the environment from 1950 to 2015 – nearly 80 percent of the total waste volume of 6.3 billion tons. Without countermeasures, another 1.3 billion tons could be added by 2040.

This has to do with a serious underlying problem: global waste management and recycling systems are still too underdeveloped, particularly in developing and emerging countries. Today, the global economy is only 8.6 percent circular. That is to say, not more than 8.6 billion of the 100 billion tons of resources used in the global economic system in 2020 were recycled, according to the Circularity Gap Report.

Circular economy as unifying vision

This must and can be changed by implementing the circular economy on a global scale. I am deeply convinced that it can be the key to climate neutrality, environmental protection and the preservation of our world’s limited resources. So, let’s make it an overarching global guiding principle and the unifying vision for decades to come.

However, the consequent implementation the circular economy will require is a major transition and true paradigm shift in society and economy. This is a giant project with many uncertainties and risks but also vast opportunities: according to experts, the circular economy has the potential to generate economic benefits of up to 4.5 trillion USD by 2030.

To get there, we must work on a lot of parameters: spreading the use of alternative raw materials to provide renewable carbon that stems from fossil resources, enabling a far greater supply of green energy as well as creating and establishing efficient waste management systems. And, of course, recycling needs a boost. Because plastics are far too valuable to be thrown away and must have more than one life.

Great potential of chemical recycling

For this, we need to broaden our options – in particular regarding technological solutions. While we should continue using established mechanical recycling, there are high expectations for chemical recycling, which is still in its infancy. In my view, it’s really a magic formula – because it allows us to transform a product into any other product.

In fact, this is the only possible recycling method for certain kinds of plastics – meaning: with chemical recycling plastics will be eventually recyclable on a really big scale. This great potential must be leveraged!

As President of PlasticsEurope I’m happy to see that things are beginning to move. European plastics producers plan to significantly increase their investments in chemical recycling, which is the right signal at the right point in time. Because now, with the increasing commitment of governments and the civil society to create a truly, climate-neutral sustainable world, the window of opportunity is opening more and more.

However, in order to quickly further develop and scale chemical recycling, we particularly need the right framework conditions. This is where policy makers and regulators could support the plastics industry, as well as the other actors in the value creation cycle in expanding recycling, significantly improving waste management, and providing a decisive impulse in establishing the circular economy.

Dr Markus Steilemann, Former President of Plastics Europe & CEO of Covestro