Unbox the future11 May 2020
While polystyrene is 100% recyclable, its potential as a recyclable material is not yet fully exploited. Styrenic Circular Solutions is looking to jump-start recycling rates and unlock the circular economy for styrenics by engaging the entire value chain. The organisation’s secretary-general, Jens Kathmann, and its advocacy and communications chair, Chrissi Schönfelder, explain how.
What is Styrenics Circular Solutions (SCS)?
Jens Kathmann: We are a growing value-chain platform, founded by a group of leading styrenics manufacturers in December 2018. We are driving innovative, game-changing technologies for the recycling of styrenics-based products, and we want to unlock the true circularity of styrenics by working closely together with the entire value chain. If you look at some upcoming initiatives, such as the European Green Deal, as well as other political directives and legislation on national levels, we’re really compliant – and even a kind of front runner, with a view to technologies and potential for food contact applications.
Who are your members, and what is their geographic or end-industry spread?
JK: Our members cover a large geographical spread across the core markets in Europe, which places us in a good position for entering into those regions and having an impact on national-level policymaking. Our members include styrenics producers, converters, brand-owners, trade associations and recyclers, and almost every week we have new members, so we’ll keep evolving in a positive direction. Having more inter-regional European players in our membership will facilitate this positive roll-out further still.
What kind of recycling technologies do you focus on?
Chrissi Schönfelder: Plastics are essential in our modern life for hygiene, consumer safety and food protection, and each type of plastic material has its own benefit. But, we need to improve plastic recycling to achieve the recycling goals of the European Commission.
SCS and our members focus on a full portfolio of recycling technologies: depolymerisation, dissolution and mechanical recycling. Depolymerisation is a chemical recycling technology that is being looked at for all kinds of polymers. With polystyrene, however, there’s a perfect marriage between the technology and the material, because it enables the plastic to be broken down into its constituent styrene monomer. You get that at a high yield and high-purity, and at identical quality to the virgin monomer.
We’re also looking at dissolution and mechanical recycling, so we don’t stand here one-footed with depolymerisation. All these technologies are nice in their own way, and we hope the value chain will work together effectively to realise their value.
What are the outstanding features of polystyrene?
CS: It has a number of outstanding features during the use phase – lightweight packaging for example. For converters it has outstanding features in terms of its forming, filling and sealing properties – they stand ready to employ recycled polystyrene in their plants.
Polystyrene also has a unique capacity in that it allows repeated recycling, without any loss of quality or value. You can polymerise the recycled styrene monomer into recycled polystyrene, and it gives you the same quality as virgin polystyrene. For the brand-owner or converter, that means they won’t face any limitations, and they can use the material for the same applications as they did with the virgin polystyrene, even for food applications. That’s why polystyrene has this unique potential for true circularity. Polystyrene also has a low diffusion property. Let’s say you have a transparent plastic box and you put tomato sauce in it, you’ll see that after a time the transparent plastic changes colour and takes on the reddish colour of the tomato sauce. But because of polystyrene’s low diffusion properties, the material does not let
potential contaminants enter its polymer matrix like other polymers. This makes it easier to purify and mechanically recycle, achieving purity levels of the mechanically recycled polystyrene that exceed 99.9%.
There’s a common misconception that polystyrene is not recyclable. Where do you think that misconception comes from and how can you address it?
JK: I think it comes from a lack of communication and a lack of recycling schemes. To give a practical example, if I buy a bottle of Coca-Cola or sparkling water, I can drop the bottle back at the grocery store, and it’s collected and recycled – so that’s less about the material and more about the schemes that are in place. People think polystyrene can’t be properly collected and sorted, so if you show them that it can be, you can build up from there.
We need to deliver on the next steps, which means better recycling schemes and better design for recycling. The end products need to be easily sortable, collectable, traceable and, therefore, compliant with future requirements. Policymakers really need to promote the collecting and sorting of plastics all over Europe – it’s quite a challenge, and it has to start with the European Commission reaching out to national policymakers and going from there.
CS: Polystyrene is actually an excellently sortable material, and the technology is there to unlock its true circularity. We have seen that with a demonstration from our value chain partners.
Although the technology has been there for a while, what we didn’t have before was the concerted action along the whole value chain. Now, we see more and more value chain members come together to understand the unique value of polystyrene, and together, they’ll help to bring about this change.
Obviously we need to do more in terms of communication. The public discussion around plastic can involve a lot of blaming. Instead of that, we should stick together and make sure everyone contributes to sorting and treating the materials as they should.
Plastic is everywhere, and yet consumers really don’t know much about it. Who do you think needs educating most, the value chain or the consumers? What kind of communication do they require?
JK: If you look at the consumer, there are some emotional aspects and educational aspects relating to plastics consumption, but they don’t tend to differentiate between different kinds of plastics. We have to communicate, first of all, polystyrene’s striking capacity to be recycled, demonstrating that it can be recycled back into high-quality applications, even for food contact.
However, the value chain is crucial to get to the consumer – you can’t jump the queue. You need converters and brandowners that spread positivity by showcasing that it can be done. They need to show we have recycled materials that are really good for the environment, and that you can get there with existing capacities and technologies.
We also need more recycling facilities, and to change consumers’ sorting behaviour by putting in place great recycling schemes that are supported by policymakers. This is really the icing on the cake in our ambition. It would mean a long-term change in mindset, but would be important to drive the market forward. We need to bring together the materials solutions, packaging solutions, and sort and collection solutions that are not only compliant today, but will also be compliant tomorrow.
What are the biggest obstacles to fully recycled polystyrene? How can they be best overcome?
JK: One challenge is over-packaging, or multilayer packaging using different materials. There’s a need to use fewer materials in packaging and avoid multilayer complexity. Another challenge is design for recycling. Here, there are good examples already, like the ‘Holy Grail’ project by Proctor & Gamble, which aims to improve the plastics sorting process at recycling facilities. A ‘design for recycling’ material solution will facilitate better sorting, as well as the traceability of materials.
If we can reach the end user in a positive way, so that they see their polystyrene packaging has been recycled and can be recycled again and over again, then the perception will change even further.
What is the key message for 2020?
JK: We need to build momentum throughout the entire value chain, and to scale up our projects so that we can move beyond proof-of-concept to deliver our technologies on a larger scale. This should fuel demand for styrenics products, because you’re taking these products away from the incineration or from landfill. That’s a striking argument to pursue this route much more strongly.
How would you define success for styrenics?
JK: I think it starts with the material. We are well aware of the capabilities of polystyrene, so we have to communicate this message with clarity. Secondly, the EU wants to have 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics sold in the EU by 2025, but today the size of the market is just 6.4 million tonnes. Styrenics will play a major role in filling the gap.
Thirdly, we have to scale up our recycling technology, and fourthly we have to roll out better sorting and collection schemes at recycling facilities. Finally, the styrenics industry has enormous potential but it needs further investment. We are facing a rather complex problem, but in order to change user perception and behaviour, we have to deliver pragmatic and simple solutions.
It’s a bit of a journey forward to 2025, so the styrenics industry and the value chain are committed. The critical mass is there. We have a substantial market for polystyrene packaging, and we have the systems to recycle it and to do something very positive on circularity. We can then roll out these solutions to other markets across the globe.