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  • Writer's pictureCraig Halgreen

Circular Economy at Borealis

Updated: May 22

"If you don’t know where it begins and ends, then it’s circular". As this is my first blog, I thought I would offer my personal view on circularity in the plastics industry and the EverMinds™ platform.

Last year, we at Borealis executed a sustainability materiality assessment with our customers, suppliers, employees, policy makers and influencers, and other key stakeholders, to ensure that we as a company are understanding and continually addressing their most important concerns. It was no surprise that the survey confirmed that they consistently regard the circular economy and the climate as the two most important criteria to be addressed by the industry.

Ever since the invention of plastics, the consumer products and packaging sector has predominantly focused on designing innovative complex structures that mitigate climate change and satisfy customer demands, consumer requirements and marketing aspirations. However, until recently, too little consideration was given to the impact that the product would have on the environment after its intended use. The sector was built upon a linear business model (make, use and dispose) and as result, too many consumer products today are produced from fossil-based resins with the environment as the only outlet. Society, regulators and policy makers no longer find this acceptable and therefore, there is significant societal pressure, and tough legislation, demanding consumer products and plastics packaging become more circular.

So, what does this mean?

The circular economy is a common buzzword on social media these days, yet still underestimated by many. Although recycling is one of the elements in a plastics circular economy, it is not the only one; it is only part of a rather complex puzzle of keeping products and emissions from entering the environment.

Like any process, the first step of ensuring a sustainable circularity of plastics products is to ensure the molecular and ascetic design of products takes into account that at the end of their intended use, they are easily collected and sorted, and fully reusable or recyclable. This has turned the manufacturing, product and packaging design industry on its head, requiring a revolutionary rethink and redesign of plastics products, while ensuring they continue to meet functional requirements and climatic advantages. Multi-layered, dark coloured and even mixed application of different types of plastics are very difficult and sometimes impossible to recycle. Based on its experience in both rigid and flexible recycling, Borealis’ codes of conduct for polyolefin packaging design are very useful for product and packaging designers to apply.

Environmental impact

If we consider the climate impact of a product – in fact, all plastics applications benefit significantly from the light weight of polymers and positive contribution to the atmosphere compared to alternative materials – the most advantageous design for a product is for it to be reusable. Throwaway cups can easily be reusable with proper design. Plastics trays for collecting harvests can be used across various industries in a sharing economy, depending on the season of the fruit or vegetable. Packaging for home deliveries, food containers and dispenser systems with refillable bottles for shampoos, washing powders and sweets can all be reusable. These applications provide opportunities for innovative distribution models with little impact on the environment.

Sounds easy, but most applications can’t actually be reused efficiently and therefore, to keep them from being discarded into the environment, we need to turn to recycling them into second-generation products. The most climatic advantageous process with minimal CO² emissions is mechanical recycling. At Borealis, both PP and PE post-consumer waste is being recycled with Borcycle® technology into recyclates, used in new products such as films, pots, trays, and vacuum cleaner components. Continuous innovation in mechanical recycling allows brand owners to reach their recycled plastics composition legislative targets. Unfortunately, recycling containers with hazardous content and many healthcare products cannot be mechanically recycled. Furthermore, mechanically recycled material for food and beverage applications is challenging and, to date, remains unresolved. However, the industry is working on this due to the high volumes of plastics in consumer products and packaging applications.

Challenges and solutions

The most challenging factor for efficient recycling is probably the quality of sorted waste. In an ideal world, every fraction of plastic would be easily recognisable by laymen at source and placed in separate waste bins. This would significantly reduce wastage of inputs into a recycling plant and provide optimum quality recycled material at the end of the process. However, plastic types aren’t so easily identifiable and collection and sorting methods are already very expensive. Deposit Return Schemes and plastic banks play a part in reducing this complexity and driving better sorted waste. A lot of investment, standardisation and reinventing in the tracing and tracking of waste is required.

For consumer products and plastics packaging that cannot be mechanically recycled, chemical recycling is under development. With chemical recycling, we return the regained monomers to the plastics production process enabling us to produce first generation plastics again with recycled content. An example, of which, is OMV and Borealis’ ReOil® technology. Technological challenges currently exist and carbon emissions are similar to the production of virgin plastics, but it’s preferable to sending it to an incinerator for energy production, or even worse, to environmentally harmful landfills.

A circular economy for plastics requires a transformative and “ever mindful” shift

So, as you can see, a circular economy for plastics requires a transformative and “ever mindful” shift in how plastic consumer products and plastics packaging (which accounts for approximately 50 % of all plastics produced) are designed, collected after use, and sorted into different fractions and recycled. Taking unnecessary and problematic plastics out of society is a humble goal Borealis supports at the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. But replacing it with a material solution with greater environmental impact is foolhardy.

This is why Borealis created a platform to unify Borealis’ and the entire value-chain activities in the transformation to a circular economy. This platform is called EverMinds™, underpinned by the tagline Thinking Circular. It is not a catch phrase or greenwashing approach, but rather an honest attempt and mindset towards collaboration with mutual convictions. Our ambition being to create a world where there is no waste of resources, no emissions into the environment and no harm to society.

Any thoughts or questions about the circularity of plastics? Then please leave your comments below and Craig will get back to you.

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