An interview with Steinbeis Entrepreneur Markus Klätte
A circular economy makes maximum use of products and raw materials over time, based on the role model provided to us by nature. TRANSFER Magazine spoke to Markus Klätte about the role played by recycling and renewable raw materials in the circular economy and discussed the issues this role presents to companies. Responsible for two Steinbeis Enterprises – Resource Technology and Management, and Resource Efficiency – Klätte knows from personal project experience that using raw materials conscientiously lays a foundation for a well-functioning economy.
Hello Mr. Klätte. Resource availability is a prerequisite for a functioning business ecosystem. How important are recycling and the circular economy at the moment?
The circular economy is a very old and established concept. Nature is showing us how things are done. The economic approach has always been about reusing goods and materials in order to maximize benefit based on minimum effort. The concept got into a bit of a mess due to the massive use of fossil fuels and raw materials – especially crude oil and natural gas, which made energy and many materials so cheap that the materials industry was able to sidestep cycles in certain areas.
Some material cycles have been economical for a long time, such as glass, paper, and steel. In Germany, we have a material recycling rate of roughly 70% for paper. Plastics are more problematic, especially post-consumer waste. We know this for a fact because we’ve been looking closely into this area. The share of recycled materials as a proportion of total plastic production in Germany is only around 12%, and that already includes production waste. So there’s still a lot to do in this area.
For closed-loop systems to work better, first they need to be kept as simple as possible. The more complicated they are, the less appealing they are. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing. The uses materials are being put to are becoming more and more specialized; they’re increasingly being tailored to a specific use with more and more additives. This makes it more difficult to recycle materials using conventional methods, and recycled materials can be disadvantageous when it comes to potential reuse, so this narrows the range of usage options for such materials. We need to put thought into other closed-loop systems such as chemical recycling. For example, new raw materials required for producing plastics can be extracted from contaminated waste that would otherwise be difficult to recycle mechanically.
When you recycle plastics, the first step involves classic recycling methods – sorting and remelting it into regranulate. For some time now there have been solvent-based techniques that allow you to remove material impurities, although even those methods have limitations, so they’ll need rethinking. Some methods that have been known for a while now – recycling plastics into oil, depolymerization, and pyrolysis – could have a role to play. But they’ve not made it into the starting blocks yet; there’s still some development work needed on them. One thing that raises hope is that for some years large companies such as OMV and BASF have also shown interest in this topic and they’re trying to support development in the longer term. One way to save even more fossil resources would be to use renewable raw materials.
Can renewables solve the problem with natural resources?
Yes and no. Naturally, sooner rather than later we’ll have to stop using fossil fuels and fossil resources, for reasons we all know. A couple of decades ago all we really thought about was the danger that there’d be raw material shortages. Now carbon footprints and energy requirements are also crucial. But to grow renewable resources you need agricultural land, and that’s limited. You can’t go and tear down virgin forests to create biofuels. You also quickly get pulled into “food or fuel” discussions. Ideally, renewable raw materials should therefore come from existing waste biomass such as straw.
Despite this, plastics made from renewables aren’t all of the same standard. It should also be possible to fit them back into the loop. One thing you get with some bioplastics is that they’re biodegradable but not necessarily recyclable. Another thing you have to consider is that often they might decompose more quickly, but ultimately you still have to sort them out of the compost as a nuisance material and incinerate them. On the other hand, polyethylene is versatile, it can be produced from both fossil resources and renewables, and it’s recyclable – but it’s not biodegradable.
But to come back to the original point, in circular economy terms renewables aren’t always the best solution, but they’re usually a pretty good one.
What topics are you currently working on at your Steinbeis Enterprises?
Mostly R&D projects focusing on our core topic, which is the development or testing of new materials, and different ways to recycle and reuse plastics in the broader sense. We identify partners, plan projects, and finally take care of financing issues, implementation, and – hopefully – successful delivery of the project.
One of the big topics we’re dealing with at the moment is chemical recycling or plastic pyrolysis. We’ve been working with Professor Seitz from Merseburg University of Applied Sciences, which has brought an important expert onto the team. He knows pyrolysis and everything related to it like the back of his hand. Our main focus is how reliable certain technologies are.
Some of the topics we’re working on are more of a theoretical nature. We’re working with the universities in Aachen and Merseburg on behalf of the German Environment Agency to compare existing chemical recycling processes. We’re also working on certain topics with a peripheral bearing on our specialty. For example, we’re currently working on a project that involves investigating the problems of waste management during pandemics. To do this, we’re enlisting the help of external experts, who can fill the gaps in our know-how.
What do you believe is the best way to ensure resources are used sustainably and efficiently, not just now but also in the future?
There’s only a certain extent to which it’ll be possible to get back to the ways of nature. The achievements made in developing materials are too good to forego now. But ultimately, the cycles will have to be made more efficient and thus more economical in terms of conserving material value. Presumably, there’ll be a whole variety of different cycles. And yes, we’ll have to get to a post-fossil world in the foreseeable future – whether we like it or not.
For more information on depolymerization processes, see the Steinbeis Edition publication (in German): Evaluation under Real Conditions of Thermal-Chemical Depolymerization Technologies (Decomposition Processes) for Recycling of Plastic Waste (Depolymerization Processes 2020). https://bit.ly/3eLcycr .