The chemical industry driving the circular economy

Circular economy

Chemical at the centre of the circular economy

Every year, researchers calculate overshoot days. It is the day when our demand for resources consumes what the earth can renew in a year. A date that should coincide with December 31 and that always arrives earlier.

Rethinking progress: the foundations of the circular economy

The current industrial process is based on a linear concept:

take → manufacture → use → throw.

Waste is the result of this production system.

The circular economy redefines growth to create economic but also natural and social capital. It focuses on the benefits for the whole society and not just for the individual. The key to the circular economy is to redesign production starting from waste which becomes a new resource. It is based on three clear principles:

  • plan waste and pollution
  • produce durable products and materials
  • regenerate natural systems.

The progressive pauperization of the planet and its renewable resources requires radical innovation. Climate change is causing fires, floods, damage to crops and the environment worldwide. Last but not least, the latest health emergency that has touched the fragility of a system that is no longer sustainable can also be blamed for careless use of resources.

Ecodesign: redesigning according to the circular economy

In the circular economy, it is essential to have a complex and complete approach to production that revolves both products and processes.

A path that involves professionalism and different subjects. First of all, designers who have to think about products with a broad horizon.

Objects must:

  • use raw materials that come from recovery chains instead of virgin resources
  • have characteristics that allow the disassembly, restructuring or recovery of the raw material
  • be modular, versatile, such as to adapt to changing conditions of use

Production sites also need to be redesigned. In order not to be a devourer of energy and resources, factories must be powered by renewable sources and not only with fossil-based sources. Great attention must be paid to the recovery of processing waste considered a valuable raw material in all respects.

Finally, it is essential to have an ecosystem and collaborative method: to think of oneself as parts of a whole that can only generate change by cooperating.

Long life to plastic. More reuse equals less waste

Plastic is an extraordinary material. It is now indispensable in infinite fields of application for its mechanical characteristics, for its modelling and also for its low cost. Precisely this factor has meant that it was considered too little a raw material for too long and has become a cumbersome and widespread waste. But plastic is too precious to be thrown away. The plastics used is an efficient source of new raw material. Covestro is developing different recovery and recycling technologies to keep plastic within the value cycle. Over 20 projects are dedicated to finding solutions and methodologies for innovative and safe upgrading.

Mechanical recycling of plastic

In mechanical recovery, the waste materials are recycled into "new" secondary raw materials without changing the basic structure of the material. After sorting and processing, the plastic is crushed into pellets which can be melted and transformed into new plastic. One of the ways Covestro uses mechanical recycling is to transform water bottles into high-quality raw materials for electronic components intended for technological devices.

Chemical recycling of plastic

With chemical recycling, plastics are reduced to their original molecular forms so that they can be transformed into completely new plastic materials. It is a refined procedure in which Covestro's skills and knowledge can be expressed at complex and innovative levels. Chemical recycling can be:

  • enzymatic, with which used products and wastes are broken down by enzymes
  • pyrolytic, with which the material is reduced in molecular units using very high temperatures.

Alternative raw materials with the recovery of waste material

In addition to new recycling technologies, in the circular economy, the production system is studied to understand which waste substances can be recovered and become a new source of raw material. In the manufacturing process, CO2 is certainly the most consistent and most harmful emission for the environment. Our "pushing boundaries" attitude led us to wonder if it was not possible to recover the CO2 emitted by our factories, to remove it from the environment and recover it in new materials. Thus was born the project to reuse CO2 as a carbon source to produce polyurethane for padding or synthetic sports lawns.

In the circular economy, energy must be renewable

A truly sustainable economy implies a global approach to where energy sources come from. Solar and wind power are alternatives to increasingly widespread and practicable fossil fuels. The infrastructures themselves must be less energetic with optimized and monitored production systems. At Covestro we are committed to continuously improving production processes and energy supply to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2025 compared to 2005 levels.

Sustainable energy for industry

We are committed to moving to renewable energy at all production sites. In Germany, we have signed the world's largest corporate contract for the supply of wind energy. From 2025 a large part of our energy needs will be covered by the North Sea wind farm. It is the first time that an industry has signed a contract of this size to encourage the energy sustainability of the chemical industry.

Reduce production consumption

Thanks to the A.I. (Artificial Intelligence) consumption can be optimized. We have developed an electrolysis process that reduces the amount of electricity needed to make basic chemicals by 25%. This system will be implemented for the first time on an industrial scale at the Tarragona site in Spain and represents an important turning point towards a more conscious use of energy.

The circular economy is cooperation and collaboration

The transition to a global circular economy can only be achieved concretely if companies, businesses and governments are able to compare and cooperate. In Covestro this commitment translates into actions on two fronts:

  1. we involve our suppliers by asking them to adopt and respect sustainability practices
  2. we are present as active subjects and stakeholders in actions to support the principles of the circular economy.

The circular economy is a path not only necessary but extraordinarily rich in new growth opportunities, paths of value and relationships. It can show new horizons and new perspectives beyond the current production and consumption models that are revealing limits and critical issues. The latest European agreement for Green Recovery signed by Covestro together with 180 other business, political and social subjects is a strong signal of renewal towards an economy that knows how to respect the planet, bring new values and progress.

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