This is how we will accelerate the transition to a circular plastics economy

4 min reading time

A strongly supported agenda featuring projects that aim to accelerate the transition to a fully circular plastics economy: that is the result of the collaboration in the Plastics transition team. The transition agenda focuses on the use of alternative raw materials, on the design of materials that enable circularity and on new technologies that improve recycling.

In the government-wide programme 'A Circular Economy in the Netherlands by 2050’, the Cabinet has outlined how we can restructure our economy so that it becomes a sustainably driven, fully circular economy in 2050. An economy in which we want to prevent waste flows and thereby put an end to waste as we know it today. The waste flows that are produced, however, will be put to much greater use. This will see an end to the current cycle of ‘produce, consume and dispose’ and join up the circle. Not only will this be beneficial for raw materials and the environment but it will also cut CO2 emissions and stimulate innovation, new business and employment.

Raw Materials Agreement

To realise the circular economy, various parties in the Netherlands – from industry organisations and production companies to authorities and NGOs – drew up the Raw Materials Agreement on 24 January 2017. Subsequently, the ministries of Infrastructure & Water Management and Economic Affairs & Climate Policy formed five transition teams for the most relevant domains: biomass and food, manufacturing, building, consumer goods and plastics. The transition agendas drafted by these teams made the ambitions more concrete: which projects will we be undertaken in the short, medium and long term?

“The use of plastics is continuing to increase substantially, and this trend is unlikely to change for the next few decades”

Use of plastics continues to increase

Jos Keurentjes, member of the TNO Executive Board, chairs the Plastics transition team. “The use of plastics is continuing to increase substantially, and this trend is unlikely to change for the next few decades,” he explains. “So if you want to have a fully circular plastics economy by 2050, then major progress will have to be made. We have three focal targets in the transition agenda. First, the developments that are needed at the front end, on the use of alternative, ‘clean’ raw materials. Second, projects that concern the design of materials that facilitate circularity. Third, we must create technologies that improve the recycling.”

No more fossil raw materials

In 2050 no fossil raw materials may be allowed in through the front end. Keurentjes: “So that gives us a lot to do. Like incorporating biobased polymers into the system or creating new raw materials based, for instance, on CO2. We also see a technological challenge in the improvement of recycling technologies. We will have to get much more out of mechanical recycling than is currently the case so that less plastic is incinerated. Finally, we will have to move in the direction of chemical recycling, which allows polymers to be unravelled much more effectively and with greater differentiation so that they can be returned to the chain in their original pure quality. This will prevent the raw materials being used in increasingly lower-value applications and enable the full potential to be used.”

“It may be that in ten years’ time we won’t have to separate our household waste”

Nanobots

There is another technology area where essential progress must be made, one that will have major societal impact. “We are talking about nanobots that make materials identifiable. Not only can you significantly improve the sorting of materials but you also see where they originate from and can therefore, use them more effectively. It may be that in ten years’ time we won’t have to separate our household waste because the technology will have reached the stage where our waste is neatly reprocessed into raw materials again. While these are some of the longer-term challenges ahead of us, they will prompt major changes between 2030 and 2050.”

Aromatics from waste

As the transition agenda gets up and running, there will be plenty for TNO to do. “In Biorizon we are already co-developing technologies for the production of aromatics from waste as well as working in early research programmes on energy storage and conversion. On the recycling side, we have completed the essential studies on chemical recycling. Moreover, we are targeting the societal domain: from which countries or parts of the world do the raw material flows originate, where do they go and what consequences does this have on employment for example?”

“This whole story only gets better in its telling when we are able to point to the promising longer-term economic prospects”

Promising economic prospects

“This whole story only gets better in its telling when we are able to point to the promising longer-term economic prospects,” Keurentjes suggests. “And I see opportunities for TNO there as well. Like identifying the consequences of activities. Should the government provide subsidy incentives or opt for a CO2 pricing scheme? And what does that imply from an international perspective? In this hugely complex world our multidisciplinarity can provide the tangible footholds to play a role, point to where the economic opportunities lie and advise on what the government can do to incentivise.”

Taking the next step

Keurentjes considers the announcement of the Plastics transition agenda as just the start of the next phase. “It is here where we have to join together in taking the next step. I’m convinced that TNO will be a key player. But we cannot and do not want to do this alone. I’m counting on significant programmes in which academic research, applied research and practical applications converge to actually ensure the uptake of the new technologies.”

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Circular economy: how can we make raw materials from organic waste?

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