From the European Green Deal to the Circular Economy Action Plan: the essential role played by recycling for climate and resource protection has seldom been so crystal clear. As is the opinion of Dr Markus Hiebel from the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety and Energy Technology UMSICHT, who believes closed-loop systems make the economy better able to weather crises like Covid-19: “Stakeholders are already working more closely together to accelerate improvements to product recyclability or recyclate use, for example.”

 

 

Dr Hiebel, a permanent changeover from a linear to a circular economy depends on a great many actors: government, consumers, manufacturing, trade and recycling companies. What part does research have to play here?

Essentially, research drives innovation: both in terms of technological developments in sorting machinery or processing and for entirely new business models such as the refurbishment of used IT equipment. Reliable life-cycle analyses – like the present resource study, for example – form an important basis for the planning and communication of sustainable action. Last but not least, research also oils the wheels of the value chain, so to speak: as a neutral broker who is able to get all of the stakeholders on the same page. Ultimately, making the change to a climate- and resource-friendly closed-loop economy requires a concerted effort.

 

In your ‘resources SAVED by recycling’ study, you measure the degree to which recycling materials help the environment down to the very last kilogramme. Which factors have the greatest impact in this climate and resource report?


Energy use is certainly an important factor. While simply cutting electricity consumption achieves a lot on its own, a high proportion of renewable energy also works to cut greenhouse gas emissions. One example of the positive effects of technical innovation is the COREMA® cascade extrusion system, which Interseroh is using to produce the next generation of the recycled plastic Procyclen. Since production involves just a single step while consuming less energy, using Procyclen today cuts greenhouse gas emissions by over 50 percent compared to new goods made from crude oil.

Recycling naturally competes with the production of comparable primary materials, so our research also keeps track of how primary processes are changing from year to year. Some raw materials – such as copper, for example – are getting increasingly hard to extract. Overburden volumes are becoming much larger as metal ore concentrations dwindle. So this also tips the scales in favour of recycling.


What trends are you seeing in product design – in plastic packaging, for example?


Most industry players are now well aware of the need to think about recycling at the outset. If a piece of packaging cannot be separated into its various parts, for example, or its colours or coatings make it hard to scan for sorting, this will make material recycling all the more difficult. While sorting is improving all the time – one example being the use of near-infrared to detect black plastics – this is a downstream strategy to solve an upstream problem. Producers must focus on selling packaging that not only fulfils product protection and hygiene requirements while conveying the brand image but is also recycling-friendly. This requires a joint effort by retailers, manufacturers and research. Consumers also have a role to play. The more accurately households sort their waste, the simpler it will be to recycle this waste. The ‘Waste Separation Works’ campaign run by the dual systems in Germany is really helping to raise awareness here.

 

Another approach is to improve recyclate take-up in manufacturing. How are stakeholders in the value chain working together here to promote the usage of recycled raw materials?


Many companies have already committed voluntarily to using a certain proportion of recycled raw materials in their products. To do so, however, they need access to these materials and dependable partnerships with recycling companies. We are now seeing the producer and recycler markets becoming more closely intertwined. Overall, we need greater incentives to increase the proportion of recyclate usage. When this proportion becomes a purchasing criterion for product procurement, this will in turn have positive effects on the demand side.

 

In early 2020, the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina warned against letting sustainability measures slide as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. In fact, the Academy said, any economic stimulus package needed to be aligned with the goals of the Green Deal. What opportunities do you see here to set the agenda for a circular economy?


A key concept here is the resilience of a national economy. In many places, Covid-19 is teaching us to think again about where we can close our resource loops. Such action would let the waste management sector generate higher quantities of recycled raw materials, secure the required quantities at the right quality, and reduce dependencies on fossil resources and external sources of supply. Simultaneously, the recycling would also cut greenhouse gas emissions. In the future, damage to the climate and environment – and the external costs of the current linear economy – need to figure more prominently in strategic planning. New ideas and business models in relation to reuse, sharing, leasing or the digitalisation of products have the power to create jobs, manage products and materials in the loop for longer, and boost the economy’s ‘immune response’ to external influences.

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