Achema Pulse: Plastic Recycling Chemical Recycling: Essential to Make the Circular Economy Work

Editor: Ahlam Rais

At Achema Pulse, an exclusive interview was conducted with Dr. Klaus Schäfer, Chief Technology Officer at Covestro in Germany. The focus of the interaction revolved around the concept of a fully circular economy with zero emissions and how this vision can become a reality. Helena Carmen Felixberger was the presenter on behalf of Dechema.

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Day 2 at Achema Pulse Live: Exclusive interview with Dr. Klaus Schäfer, Chief Technology Officer at Covestro.
Day 2 at Achema Pulse Live: Exclusive interview with Dr. Klaus Schäfer, Chief Technology Officer at Covestro.
(Source: Achema Pulse)

What will be the resources of the future?

Dr. Klaus Schäfer: We need to develop technologies through invention and innovation. At Covestro, we currently have over 20 R&D ongoing projects to find efficient technologies and methods for plastic recycling. The recycling aspect is more urgent today as we find that most of the plastic waste is neither recycled nor reprocessed.

Bioplastics only accounted for about 1 % of the total production last year and we expect that it will grow significantly within the next decade and reach around 40 % in the market by 2030. We see a huge potential for new recycling technologies to turn waste into valuable resources. We have developed a process to include 20 % CO2 into polyesters and have also planned a pilot plant for this purpose to further develop this process.

In your goal of becoming fully circular, what changes will take place at Covestro in the coming years?

Schäfer: The first thing is to have partners for R&D. We need strong collaboration with companies who are supplying equipment and process technologies for enzymatic processes. One of the most important aspects in this transition is to find technologies from the existing asset structure and use it as solutions in the chemical industry so that we do not need to rebuild the entire chemical industry once again. Investments between 54 – 84 billion dollars will be required to cope with this change. Also, the number of regulations need to be removed or changed in order to support the industry’s sustainable developments. There is a huge motivation in politics to get these things moving, however, to establish laws in this area will require some time. In addition to this, chemical recycling has to be seen at the same level as mechanical recycling. We still need to convince people that chemical recycling is an essential element to make the fully circular world work.

We see a huge potential of new recycling technologies to turn waste into valuable resources.

Dr. Klaus Schäfer, Chief Technology Officer at Covestro.

What needs to be done by your suppliers to support you in your transformation?

Schäfer: There are two parts to this. One part is about the supply of energy and the other one deals with equipment and new technologies. We need green power to be supplied to our industry in the future. A study by Dechema and Future Chem revealed that the most important element to get the chemical industry in Germany to reach a stage of zero emissions was electrification. This means that nearly everything that is heated with gas, coal, oil, etc., today needs to be electrified and some of the chemical processes also need to be electrified. This will result in a significant increase in power demand. The calculation mentioned about 630 terra watt hour per year by 2050 which equals the total consumption of Germany as of today. Turning towards our suppliers, we need this amount of power at a reasonable price so that our products will stay competitive. As the power market is a strongly regulated market in most countries of the world, it requires the support of politicians so that they can give our industry access to affordable power. This is the key element as without this the transformation will not happen. We also need the suppliers of equipment and technology to support us in technology development and then lift it up on an industrial scale.

What is your perspective about the hydrogen market?

Schäfer: There is a significant demand for hydrogen across steel and chemical industries as well as the airline sector. The hydrogen scenario is a huge challenge and a bigger challenge than the transformation of our electrical systems. In our electrical systems, we have power stations, transportation, distribution grids, and consumers, however, in the case of hydrogen, the demand is very low today as compared to what we are aiming for. There are no grids, no transportation or plants across the entire country to support hydrogen and its production is very limited. We need to build the entire infrastructure and market for hydrogen and that is a huge challenge.

How are political leaders supporting the industry transformation?

Schäfer: Over the last 3-4 years, the motivation has increased significantly, there is a lot of spirit to get it done. Everybody is aware that we need to stay competitive on a global level with our competitors in the Arabian, Asian or American world. I see a very positive development in Europe and I see more and more regions in the world joining that development which makes it easier from a competitor perspective.

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