INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Three Steps to Establishing a Circular Economy: Innovate, Collaborate, Take Action

Maurits van Tol, Senior Vice President, Innovation and Technology, Borealis, and keynote speaker at the 10th GPCA PlasitCon, speaks to GPCA Insight Express about the need to establish a circular economy strategy and how Borealis is making a difference through its voluntary programs and initiatives, and investing in sustainable solutions in Europe and the world

From your point of view and that of a leading European polymer producer such as Borealis, what should companies focus on when it comes to establishing a robust circular economy strategy?

Like other forward-looking companies, we are convinced that establishing a circular economy strategy is not only the right thing to do in order to bring about greater sustainability, it is an excellent opportunity for profitable business growth. However, it will be an enormous challenge to replace the conventional “take-make-dispose” model with a more circular one. In my view, the industry now needs to do four main things: innovate, collaborate, focus on the customer, and take action.

First, innovation is crucial in order to develop value-creating solutions in the circular sphere. At Borealis, we continue to invest heavily in R&D to build on our existing technological expertise. We are also applying our polyolefins know-how to the area of mechanical recycling, with the aim of consolidating our position as a recycling technology leader.

Second, the move from a linear to a circular economy requires collaboration among many different partners, and not just within the industry. For example, we know that the problem of plastic pollution in marine environments needs to be tackled at the source. This is why we co-founded the initiative Project STOP, which works with municipalities in Indonesia to establish effective waste management systems. We hope to proliferate that success to other cities around the world.

Third, we have to retain focus on the customer in order to deliver products and applications that create real value for them, and for society as well. Finally, we all need to take action. It is not enough to “talk the talk” – we have to put our money where our mouth is when it comes to implementing circular economy principles. Everything Borealis is doing today is geared towards establishing tomorrow’s circular economy of plastics. We are in it for the long haul, not with some simple PR.

“We have to retain focus on the customer in order to deliver products and applications that create real value for them, and for society as well.”
“Borealis has pledged to quadruple the number of recycled plastics solutions in our portfolio by the year 2025.”

With the recent launch of your new EverMinds™ platform and other CE initiatives, Borealis is doubling down its efforts in the circular economy. Can you tell us more about the platform and some of your more important circular economy initiatives?

We launched this dedicated brand in December last year to make the topic of plastics circularity more visible, and to promote a more circular mind-set within the industry. The idea behind the name EverMinds reflects the notion that we must be “ever” mindful of our duty to remain open and progressive, and to keep discovering new ways of doing things.

We are very pleased to have already received so much feedback about the platform, because one of our aims in creating it was to stimulate debate and discussion. We are using the platform as a catalyst to inspire innovative solutions based on the circular model of recycling, re-use and design for circularity. I would describe EverMinds as the umbrella under which all Borealis circular economy efforts are united. It is a platform for information exchange among our customers and value-chain partners, sometimes in the form of industry gatherings we have sponsored, like the EREMA Days held last June.

It is also a source for stakeholders to learn more about important initiatives like the afore-mentioned Project STOP, or our involvement in the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s Line in the Sand” project, which also aims to eliminate plastic pollution at its source. The platform also offers details on circular solutions we have already developed in collaboration with partners, and even helpful guidelines for design for polyolefins recyclability.

As part of your commitment to the circular economy, have you formally established any targets and how are you looking to meet them?

Borealis has pledged to quadruple the number of recycled plastics solutions in our portfolio by the year 2025. This requires a stronger than ever dedication to our mission of “Value Creation through Innovation.” In addition to cooperation with value-chain partners, R&D efforts at Borealis facilities and the Borouge Innovation Centre in Abu Dhabi, will be essential in order to achieve this goal. Many societal problems need a technological solution.

We have also communicated ambitious targets within the broader industry framework of the European Polyolefins Circular Economy Platform (PCEP). One shared goal is to achieve a 60% recycling and re-use rate for polyolefins packaging by 2030. Another is to ensure that by 2030, 75% of all polyolefins packaging is designed for circularity, meaning that 100% recyclability is literally built in to the packaging from the very start.

What is more, Borealis has signed on to the EU Commission’s pledging campaign to support the actions and aims defined within the European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy. Among other things, this involves ensuring that by 2025, 10 million metric tons of recycled plastics are being used annually to make new products for the EU market. We are spending heavily in this area, most recently in 2018, when we invested EUR 15 million to boost our mtm plastics recycling capacity by nearly 50%.

Borealis has been active in acquiring major recycling companies in Europe, so you clearly see an opportunity there. For our readers in the region and the globe – can you tell us what sort of opportunities can recycling acquisitions create for polymer producers?

On the one hand, there is considerable market demand for more – and above all, higher-quality – plastics recyclate. This is why it is essential to boost our overall polyolefins recycling capacity. On the other hand, we ourselves are stimulating demand for recyclate through value-chain collaboration that develops novel products and applications composed wholly, or in part, of PCR (post-consumer recyclate).

All the signs point to steady and substantial growth in the global market for recycled polyolefins over the coming years. We were a bit ahead of the curve in 2016 when we acquired mtm plastics, which was already one of the largest producers of PCR recyclate in Europe. Leveraging our respective areas of expertise – Borealis as virgin polyolefins producer, and mtm as recycling technology leader – is in our view the best way to capitalize on these growth opportunities. This is also why we continue to invest not only in mtm, but in acquiring other recyclers, as we did with Ecoplast in 2018. Transforming household and industrial plastic waste into high-quality LDPE and HDPE recyclate, much of which is used in the production of plastic films, is a particularly exciting market opportunity.

As sustainability requirements increase on both the consumer and regulators side, do you see recycled content playing an important role in the production of plastics and packaging in the future? What should companies do now to address this trend?

Collaboration and customer centricity are driving circularity in plastics. As an industry, we need to be able to provide polyolefin solutions that offer the same high quality and performance, but with greater circularity. Borealis has developed a portfolio of Daplen™ polypropylene grades composed of PCR and virgin content in order to meet automotive industry demand for safe, readily available, and high-quality reclaimed materials with a lower environmental impact. One exciting product designed for recyclability is our Full PE laminate solution, a monomaterial that functions as a replacement for non-recyclable multilayer packaging. Again, this 100% recyclable full PE stand-up pouch was developed in cooperation with several value chain partners.

“Collaboration and customer centricity are driving circularity in plastics. As an industry, we need to be able to provide polyolefin solutions that offer the same high quality and performance, but with greater circularity.”
“As the GCC region has been particularly successful in the development of a virgin plastics industry, I do have the trust they can develop technology in the circular economy as well.”

The circular economy concept has been gaining traction across the globe, and the Arabian Gulf region is no exception. Do you see significant potential for its development in the GCC region and how important a role can the polymer industry play?

The specific challenges faced by various regions around the world may differ, but in the end, our ultimate goal is the same: we need to make the system more circular, and less wasteful. To re-use, recycle, or recover for energy whenever possible; and to design for circularity in order to prevent waste from being produced in the first place. It is up to each company to be innovative and collaborative to these ends. As the GCC region has been particularly successful in the development of a virgin plastics industry, I do have the trust they can develop technology in the circular economy as well. Not only for application within this rapidly growing region, but also for deployment across the world, together with their customers and value chain partners.

Above and beyond that, every company can choose to show leadership within the industry to pave the way to a more circular economy of plastics. We invite companies to join us in supporting initiatives like the “Line in the Sand.” And as polyolefin producers, we should do our part to ensure that efficient waste collection and management systems are in place. This may involve community outreach in a form such as our Project STOP in Indonesia.