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Reimagining Value Chains for Circularity

November 15, 2023

Reimagining Value Chains for Circularity

Han Hendriks, SVP and Chief Technology Officer

Changing how we develop materials and use them at their end-of-life is a critical step toward building a circular economy, which will help us develop more sustainable plastics manufacturing for future generations.

Companies throughout value and supply chains are recognizing the urgent need to deliver solutions that will contribute to circularity and net zero carbon emissions in order to address this challenge. However, recent regulations could hinder progress. Too often government regulations target one area of the value chain—such as the chemical industry—without recognizing the impact on other industries, and this can slow down innovation.

With so many players in the circular economy, this approach can have negative repercussions throughout the whole lineup.

Seeing the Whole Value Chain

Our world depends on plastics. Exciting new recycling technologies and materials innovations are making plastics increasingly sustainable and circular, enabling more materials than ever before to be reused and reimagined into new products.

However, significant regulatory burdens and unrealistic deadlines may have inverse consequences – effectively stifling innovation and setting back efforts to build a circular infrastructure. For example, the anticipated timeline for the EU’s updated directive on end-of-life vehicles (ELVs) does not match what is realistically feasible. In particular, the directive ensures that at least 25% of plastic used to build a vehicle comes from recyclate-containing materials, of which 25% from recycled ELVs.

There are several problems with this. First, the chemical industry requires several years to develop solutions that meet the same safety and performance standards as existing virgin materials. Not only does the industry need to develop materials that meet the strict, but necessary, safety and performance characteristics of existing materials but we also need to increase access to feedstocks. Unfortunately, it can be challenging to secure reliable and high-quality streams of waste feedstocks, which can hinder the development of recyclate-containing materials.

Second, the average vehicle is on the road for 12-15 years. In order to dismantle vehicles at the end of their life, we need to plan for this at their assembly. This means the automotive industry is effectively already behind in terms of implementing new design solutions that incorporate recycled feedstocks and can easily be disassembled.

Instances like this inhibit innovation, as now the automotive industry is focused on addressing the latest regulations rather than investing broadly in innovative sustainable solutions. Regulations can unintentionally fragment how our industries work together to create a circular economy and often fail to consider the whole picture.

Meeting Customer Demands

As the chemical industry continues to explore innovations to create sustainable materials, we must balance regulations with customer needs and end-consumer expectations. Sustainable materials—and sustainable design—must meet the same safety and performance requirements as their virgin counterparts.

At Trinseo, we have implemented new mechanical and chemical recycling technologies, such as dissolution and depolymerization, to meet the highest demands of our customers for recyclate-containing materials. However, as previously mentioned, it can be challenging to acquire high-quality waste feedstocks due to a lack of waste management harmonization and end-consumer incentives. With increasingly strict regulations around plastics, it will only become harder and harder to develop the infrastructure needed for circular products due to an inability to secure certain waste feedstocks.

This is a critical issue, especially for plastic solutions that play a role in keeping us safe and require high-purity waste streams, such as translucent headlights and fire-resistant battery casings.

As we innovate future materials, we need to balance regulations and design with realism. With regulations tending to be more populistic instead of based on science, we must consider how these changes will impact the sustainability efforts of the value chain and our ability to meet deadlines for fossil-free and carbon-neutral initiatives.