Two Natural Partners


The consumption of resources is increasing, with mountains of garbage piling up – how can we cope with this? Mainly through increased cooperation. For this reason, two important industries - chemicals and waste management - now want to work more closely together. A double interview.


Written by: Stefan Mechnig

Too much of one, too little of the other: More and more plastic waste is entering the environment, while recycling on a global scale is still more of a marginal phenomenon. Two issues on the minds of two top experts. Peter Kurth is Executive President of the German Association of Waste Management, Water and Environmental Service Industries (BDE); for several years he also headed the European waste management association FEAD. In a joint interview, he speaks with Markus Steilemann, Chairman of the Board of Management of the plastics manufacturer Covestro and President of the German Chemical Industry Association (VCI).

Mr. Kurth, Mr. Steilemann, it will soon be announced that humanity has once again prematurely depleted the natural resources that our planet can replenish within a year. With our existing lifestyle, we would actually need 1.7 earths. How can we counteract this?

Kurth: Indeed, this overexploitation must not be allowed to continue. Constantly extracting new resources from the earth, manufacturing products from them and ultimately discarding them – there’s truly a more sustainable way. However, an ingenious concept exists that could help us reverse the trend: the circular economy. It must now be firmly anchored as a major overarching project that every individual, society as a whole, and the business community embraces.

What does that mean in practical terms then?

Kurth: For the consumer, this means using goods multiple times, for longer durations, and repairing them more frequently. Producing as little waste as possible and disposing of unavoidable waste in such a way that it can be easily recycled. Manufacturers must do two things above all: first, they must design more and more products in such a way that they can be reused, repaired, and recycled at the end of their lives. And second, they must increase the use of recyclates and other renewable raw materials – biomass, for example, or even CO2 – in their production processes. 

Steilemann: Exactly, circularity must become the world’s leitmotif. In doing so, we are not only conserving natural resources. Rather, we can also do something to counteract climate change and the ongoing destruction of the environment and nature. The way we deal with waste is also to blame. Around one-third of the municipal waste generated worldwide today is not disposed of properly.

That said, your sector, the plastics industry, is also making a significant contribution to this. Every year, 22 million tons of plastic waste end up in the ocean and throughout nature in an uncontrolled way. The OECD recently warned that if no action is taken, we face the threat of doubling the amount by 2060. At some point, there could be more plastic than fish in the sea. How do we prevent such a dystopia?

Steilemann: By first and foremost getting to the root of the problem and ensuring that this waste is not created in the first place. In the EU, approximately one-third of plastic waste is recycled, but the situation is quite different in developing and emerging countries for the most part. It is shocking that around two billion people, or about a quarter of the world’s population, do not have access to regular waste disposal. That’s a truly massive problem, especially when it comes to plastic waste, which then often ends up in bodies of water. There is often a lack of simple and effective collection and take-back systems; consumers are unsure of where and how to properly dispose of a product. Modern sorting facilities that can separate the different types of waste are also needed. Another very important factor is a change in attitude: consumers and producers must see waste as a valuable reservoir of raw materials.

Currently, however, only about nine percent of all plastic waste is successfully recycled. This is also approximately the same as the global recycling rate for all materials, although according to the Circularity Gap Report, this has recently been declining in percentage terms. How can recycling be spurred?

Kurth: There is certainly a burgeoning interest in waste as a raw material in industry. But it must also be available in sufficient quantities, at competitive prices and in the required quality. Government support instruments could help in this respect, for example by imposing quotas on the proportion of recycled materials in end products, so that the industry can plan ahead with certainty from the demand side of things. I would also like to pick up on what Mr. Steilemann just said. Good recycling calls for well-sorted and clean waste; to achieve this, consumers, manufacturers, and disposal companies must work side by side. This is especially important with heavily soiled plastics as well as those made of different layers that have to be treated differently. 

Steilemann: You’ve raised a very important point there. We must urgently reach a point where even those types of plastics that have been excluded for various reasons can be recycled. This requires innovation and supplementary new technologies such as chemical recycling. This involves breaking down used plastic into its molecules, which can then be used to create new high-quality plastics. Such new possibilities should not be squelched and questioned now, but instead they should be promoted and implemented.

Will innovative technologies also enable us to address the problem that rich countries continue to export their waste to poorer countries, especially in the global South?

Kurth: Obviously, exporting insufficiently recyclable waste to other countries is not an option at all. And since the entry into force of the Basel Convention in 2019, this practice has already significantly decreased. However, trading in waste is not negative per se. For example, the EU is experiencing an increasing demand for waste as a raw material and could become even more of an importer of well-processed material than it has been in the past. If recycling is ensured, exporting waste is not a problem either. Transparency is key: we must gain full insight into the flow of goods and recognize when there are inadequacies or violations. This is where new technologies such as the traceability of materials via blockchain can definitely help.

The international community is working towards a global agreement against plastic pollution, and a new round of negotiations is currently underway. What has to happen for a contract to actually come into being in the end?

Kurth: The fact that the world agreed on such an endeavor in Nairobi last year is already a great success. I hope that we can achieve something similar to the Paris Climate Agreement or, more recently, the Montreal Conservation Agreement. It seems that politicians are gradually realizing that everyone is in the same boat and that inaction poses a greater risk. Decisive action is needed, quickly and together. 

Steilemann: Exactly, we must all pull together. And our industries, the chemical industry and the waste management industry, are so to speak natural partners here and can lead the way. The Europe-wide “Circular Foam” project, for example, demonstrates how this can be done. Under the coordination of Covestro, 22 partners from nine countries are researching the chemical recycling of rigid foam, which is used to insulate buildings and refrigerators. If this works, the European Union could save around one million tons of waste and three million tons of CO₂ emissions per year from 2040. This is how the circular economy will enter people’s lives.

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