What It Takes To Innovate: Recycling Technologies
Innovation is not only a question of skill. It is a question of creativity and resilience, about going three steps forward and two steps back and still having the drive to keep going. We asked two innovators at Covestro about their personal journey in the field of developing new recycling technologies, and what it takes for them to innovate.
Our interview partners come from very different stages in the innovation process. Both working on new recycling technologies. Karin Clauberg is platform lead for Circular Economy at Covestro and currently working on commercializing Evocycle® CQ Mattress, a chemical recycling technology for polyurethane soft foam. Jan Heijl, heading the group for chemical process technology development for polycarbonates, TPU and films.
Karin, Jan, what is the latest innovation that you have worked on?
Karin: The chemical recycling process that we have developed within our first initiative Evocycle® CQ Mattress: we are transforming end-of-life mattress foam directly back into renewed-alike polyurethane main building blocks – giving them new life. I am very proud of being part of these activities. We’ve been able to demonstrate that the two main raw materials originally used in flexible polyurethane (PU) foam from used mattresses can be completely recovered by chemolysis in our pilot plant in Leverkusen.
Jan: My team and I currently strive to find a chemical recycling route for aromatic polycarbonates that can deliver good yield and selectivity, but is not too energy intensive. As polycarbonate waste is seldom selectively collected, applicability over a wide range of products and blends is also a must. Take a car part for example, car parts are mostly coated, so the process has to work for these material mixes as well.
Jan, your work is at the beginning of the innovation cycle. Where do you find ideas what kind of technologies to try out?
Jan: Recycling technologies are much like other R&D projects. The company strategy dictates in which direction to look. Then, everything starts with a literature study, the brains of creative researchers and the right network of experts. The combination of those three factors can then be used to start screening experiments for the chosen technologies. Once experiments come into play, it quickly becomes apparent which technologies could be promising, and where show stoppers pop up.
During the process of bringing a new recycling technology to life, what did you struggle the most with?
Jan: The availability of a clear feed stream for a polycarbonate recycling technology is much like a chicken or egg discussion. As there is no technology currently available to deal with a potential feed, there is no feed stream made available. Thus we have to develop both the technology and the “waste availability” in parallel.
Karin: The keys for successful process industrialization are for sure the development and validation of innovative technologies on industrial level, but also the establishment of circular eco-commercial-systems. Only collected plastic waste can be recycled, like Jan said. It is therefore necessary to improve waste disposal as well as collection and sorting systems. In addition, legal regulations should prohibit the disposal of plastics in landfills. In the case of the mattresses, so far only some European countries have established collection systems enabling the recycling of mattresses. Thus we are working with recycling specialists such as Interzero and Eco-mobilier, as well as other partners along the value chain, to ultimately close the material cycle for polyurethane mattresses.
When you hit that roadblock, how did that make you feel?
Jan: For our technical experts who wish nothing more than to be creative in finding and testing solutions to technical questions, there is nothing more frustrating than discussing a hypothetical logistics question with no clear answer for the umpteenth time with your managers and stakeholders. So frustration is the right word to describe the feeling, I believe.
Karin: Along the last years we faced some technical challenges and some questions are still not answered yet. This can be discouraging at times. On the other hand, working in such innovative projects, you are prepared for these ups and downs. So, usually, I manage to keep courage and confidence.
Where did you find the motivation to keep going?
Karin: To my opinion, it is crucial that the entire team, internal and external stakeholders believe on the success of the entire project. We need to be confident in doing the right thing! It is not only about being part of this huge transformation towards circular economy, it is furthermore the belief that the technology will change the polyurethane industry as a whole.
Jan: The entire team believes in the technology we are developing, and we have always been confident that once the technology is available, there will be a feed stream made available. Now we know that we will certainly have ample waste product from several different industries and product groups for making the first steps in scale-up as soon as we are ready. If we can be successful there, we are convinced that this will create the necessary push to collect and recycle larger volumes to keep growing the scale and applicability of the technology.
Karin, with Evocycle® CQ Mattress you have already a few years of constant development and improvement behind you. How did you motivate your team to keep going during that project?
Karin: Indeed, I am already responsible for these activities since 2019. To be honest, it wasn’t too difficult to keep going as our management decided very fast to upscale the technology based on our first lab test results. Since that time we, the entire team and me, got a lot of support, trust and commitment internally. And lately we had a positive customer feedback, being able to show that polyurethane foam is chemically recyclable. This was a huge success for us and a real booster for confidence in that we are on the right way towards the circular economy.