Where Can Chemistry Help Close the Plastics Loop?
Where Can Chemistry Help Close the Plastics Loop?
Plastic is everywhere. Our modern lives depend on it. But the miracle material is becoming a global problem as single-use plastics waste resources and choke ecosystems. A circular economy for post-consumer plastic could change that. Modern chemistry might hold the key.
External Expert Interview
As Packaging Developer for Werner & Mertz, Alexander designs recyclable packaging that’s easy to separate and reuse, and works to incorporate more and more recycled materials in his designs.
How are design and recycling interlinked?
Alexander, your company prides itself on being a pioneer in eco-friendly products. Does that apply to their packaging as well?
Back in 1986, with environmental awareness on the rise, Werner & Mertz established Frosch as a brand for eco-friendly cleaning products. It led the way back then and we’re leading the way again by working to close the loop for our packaging materials.
What’s the current share of recycled material in your bottles and what’s the target?
Roughly 70 percent of our bottles currently incorporate recycled materials. We’ve committed ourselves to using 100 percent recycled material by the year 2025 for all of our packaging. So we’re well underway, but there’s work left to be done.
What’s holding you back?
There are both economic and technical hurdles. The use of recycled materials still lacks economies of scale. Today, recycled plastics are in many cases more expensive than virgin plastics. But we’re confident that this will change with growth in demand and supply. In the meantime, we´re working with different shareholders on solutions for recyclable packaging and working to open new fields for the use of recycled materials.
Impurities in recycled materials are a problem. Where do they come from?
Some stem from labels for example. We’re dealing with inks, adhesives, and paper fibers that end up in the recyclates. Here we need to call both on recycling firms to improve treatment processes and on packaging manufacturers to use more recycling-friendly solutions. But there’s also the issue of complex plastic mixes. What to a consumer might seem like a simple enough plastic pack, say for cheese or meats, is in fact made up of several functional layers, each from a different plastic with any number of additives in the mix. Here we need unification in materials.
You mentioned joint Research & Development. Who are you working with?
No one company can solve this problem alone. We need to work with partners along the entire packaging value chain. That’s why, in 2012, we started our recyclate initiative. It involves »Der Grüne Punkt™«, Germany’s largest industry-funded waste collection scheme, a supermarket chain, a big manufacturer of plastic bottles and caps, as well as an environmental group and the makers of sensors used to sort waste. But it’s an open collaboration that invites any company to get involved, including our competitors.
Don’t recyclers work with plastics manufacturers anyway?
A lot less than you’d think. We made an effort to actually visit recycling facilities and bottle-production sites together. That was a first for some. To better understand the needs and constraints along the value chain is part of our drive to rethink packaging.
Where does a supplier like Clariant come in?
We recently introduced a new bottle cap made entirely of recycled polypropylene extracted from household waste. Together with Clariant, we’ve developed a new type of color masterbatch for our trademark green that is tailored to this specific post-consumer plastic. Not only that, we were able to substitute certain chemicals in this masterbatch, making it particularly sustainable and recyclable. It follows the Cradle-to-Cradle™ guidelines, and the certification process has started.
What’s the key in designing for recyclability?
We need to rethink certain paradigms in packaging. For example, for years the industry has designed for packaging to be lightweight. That often meant using ever thinner layers but adding different materials, additives, and functions. This causes problems in recycling up to no recyclability at all. »Healthy materials«, meaning mono-materials without additives, would actually be a huge boon to recyclability.
Are you following this route to simplicity?
Yes. Last year, we patented a 100-percent recyclable pouch made of a polyethylene mono-material that will hit the shelves this year for a laundry detergent and a host of other products. The spout and cap are also made of polyethylene, and, instead of printing or gluing on any labels, we dress the pack in a decorative layer of low-density polyethylene that comes off easily and cleanly after use.
Internal Expert Interview
As Head of New Business Development at Clariant, Richard works with a unique team that is rethinking how we design and formulate plastics for a circular economy.
How can we help improve plastics recycling?
Richard, Clariant is exploring new approaches to plastics recycling. Why?
As a company we are driven by sustainability. In a sense, it’s become the lens through which we look at any new business opportunity. And plastics are an interesting case here. Their strength, light weight, and versatility have made them ubiquitous. Which, in and of itself, isn’t a bad thing. Better plastic packaging has dramatically reduced food waste. Light weight plastics help save fuel. And plastics have increased the durability of products in many aspects of modern life. That’s why demand for plastic has reached 322 million tons in 2015. Unfortunately, much of the produced plastic is lost after a single use. Every year, about 200 million tons are disposed of in landfills and about eight million tons leak into the oceans uncontrolled. We desperately need to find a solution for this waste problem. Having decades of experience in improving plastics, we consider Clariant to be well positioned to do just that. This also drove our decision to become a founding member of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste.
In your search, you’ve applied a new concept called iGarage. What is that and how does it help?
The problem is very complex and involves many different industries. We applied the iGarage, a new concept developed by Clariant Excellence to drive customer-centric innovation. It’s a space where we bring together different experts from across the company as well as from the outside. By leveraging methods like design thinking and lean startup tools, they come up with new insights and approaches for a business. The main point is to gain speed and to focus on a singular challenge together. The iGarage allows us to tackle opportunities that are more complex and uncertain but also more rewarding.
What could Clariant’s contribution look like?
We can contribute in two important ways. First, we can help increase the lifespan and use of plastic products. Reusing a plastic product several times because it’s more durable reduces waste. And that’s something we are already doing a lot today. Our second contribution would be to help design plastic products for improved recyclability. That can mean designing materials to make them easier to separate, recover, and reuse them for new products. It can also mean designing materials that make mixing different materials obsolete in the first place. Imagine a single recyclable material that does the job usually reserved for several layers of different plastics.
What’s driving the push for a circular plastics economy?
Consumer awareness is very high, which drives brand owners and consumer-facing industries to make strong commitments. I know of big companies that want to use 100 percent recycled materials by 2025. As things are going, they won’t even find those materials. Additionally, legislation is being introduced around the world that increases the pressure on industries to reduce plastic waste.
What are the next steps for Clariant?
We’ve prioritized five specific concepts that we’re fleshing out right now, again working with external experts and scouting for technologies.
What are you looking for? New products, new services, or even new business models?
All of the above. We want to apply our products, but we also think about new business models. Is there, for example, an opportunity to co-develop recyclable and high-performing post-consumer solutions in particular? Those are things the individual Business Unit could do, but there may be opportunities for an overarching business model addressing the whole plastics-recycling value chain.
How is the industry reacting to your efforts?
They haven’t gone unnoticed. We’re now being invited to join various consortia like the Circular Economy Initiative Deutschland.