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Rethinking plastics recycling: towards a circular economy

A blessing and a curse: While we appreciate the multitude of applications and long lifespan that plastics delivers, it is precisely these properties that prove challenging when recycling. Anna Platzer and Zerah Ali know all about recycling processes and here they explain what is really needed for efficient plastics recycling as part of a circular economy.

From “Take, Make and Waste” to “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle”

“For a long time, our economy has been dominated by a linear approach under which raw materials are manufactured, processed, used once and thrown away. But the future calls for a circular economy in which we reuse our products and recycle them efficiently at the end of their life. And that holds true for plastic as well”, says Anna Platzer, OMV expert for plastics recycling. This is not a new topic, but it is one that has been gaining ground in recent years.

Plastic will be with us for a long time to come. It is a versatile and comparatively cheap material. That makes it even more important to reuse it and recycle it efficiently – and never to waste it.
Anna Platzer, Projects Director Plastic-to-Plastic, OMV Downstream GmbH

Experts estimate that demand for plastics has increased twentyfold in the past 50 years and that it will double again in the next 20 years. Hardly surprising given the benefits plastic offers in many areas, simply because it is so versatile. There are hundreds of different plastics, although most are only used in a few special applications as specialized polymers. In contrast, the majority of plastic produced worldwide – namely around 90% – is made from just six different mass plastics (see box). But this variety of different types of plastic makes recycling more labor-intensive than with glass or paper. “There is no single solution for plastics recycling. What’s more, plastics have a very long life, which unfortunately means that plastic waste has a long life too”, says Zehra Ali, responsible for Circular Economy Solutions at OMV subsidiary Borealis: “As a plastics producer, we are responsible for the end of the value chain as well. How can we recycle the many different plastics as efficiently as possible and thereby help to establish an effective circular economy in the plastics sector?”.

Like yin & yang: mechanical versus chemical plastics recycling

In essence, there are two different ways of recycling the different types of plastic: with mechanical recycling the plastic is cleaned, mechanically flaked, melted down and processed into plastic granulate. This can be used to make the same products again, i.e. a detergent bottle becomes a new detergent bottle. No change is made to the chemical structure of the plastic, which is why the feedstock must be sorted properly and even split into different colors. Borealis operates three mechanical recycling plants: Ecoplast, mtm plastics and a pilot plant in Lahnstein, Germany. In contrast, “mixed plastics”, i.e. when multiple types of plastic are used in a product, is when chemical recycling comes into play. Like at the OMV ReOil plant in the Schwechat Refinery. This involves changing the chemical composition of the plastic, producing synthetic crude from plastic waste. The crude can then be used to make any type of plastic and product. Plastic waste thereby becomes a valuable raw material.

Recycling as both start and end

It’s often hard for consumers to “do the right thing”. How should I dispose of my plastics properly? Is organic plastic better for the environment? What should I pay attention to when shopping? There’s such a lot to consider. For example, on the one hand, plastic made from recycled material is a good thing. On the other hand, this doesn’t affect at all whether it can then itself be recycled. The term organic plastic is also not definitive: plastic from sustainable resources is not automatically biodegradable. “That’s why we as consumers need to ask what to look for already at the purchasing stage”.

And when it comes to disposal, it’s not always easy to know what’s what when there is a row of different waste containers in front of you. Simply throwing it in the general waste without sorting anything is the worst solution, as our waste is increasingly becoming a valuable resource. In fact, the erroneously popular opinion that all of the waste gets mixed back together in the end is simply false. So it is worth brushing up on the local guidelines for waste disposal as these can vary greatly. 

For a circular economy to be able to work in the plastics sector, we need to pay attention already when producing the raw material so that the end product can be reused and is easy to recycle.
Zehra Ali, Strategic Platform Leader Circular Economy Solutions, Borealis

Thinking in circles from the word go

“For a circular economy to work, it needs to be applied already at the product manufacturing stage”, says Zehra Ali. “If all of the partners in the value chain work together, we can create enormous value added for the environment and the economy”, she insists. With the Borealis Code of Conduct “Design for Recyclability”, product designers can apply their expert knowledge across the entire value chain to develop package that is recycling friendly. Did you know, for example, that some labeling on the packaging or even the color of the plastic can make it harder to recycle?

To spread the word and make knowledge exchange an even greater priority, Borealis has introduced the initiative “Everminds”. It promotes new projects, technologies and cooperation initiatives for a circular economy for plastic. An example of a project celebrated via the Everminds platform is, one where around 80 value-chain partners are working on a new standard for are working on a new standard for plastic packaging, that uses so-called digital watermarks for easier sorting and thereby makes them more recyclable.

After all, responsibility for recycling lies not only with the consumer, but with the entire production chain.

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