The Circular plastics research theme of the SPIRIT programme aims to find means to increase the plastic waste recycling rate and the quality of recycled plastics. Consequently, the goal is to reduce the amount of incineration of these valuable raw materials which pose remarkable potential for further processing in a closed loop. Jaakko Tuomainen from Borealis is excited to lead this research theme and tells us more about its objectives.
EU regulations on plastics recycling as a guiding light
Fighting climate change and accelerating green transition are important challenges for the plastics industry as well, and the EU goals for recycling plastic waste are approaching their next deadlines in year 2025. Led by Borealis, the SPIRIT programme and its ecosystem partners are set to give their contribution to meet this challenging target.
Jaakko Tuomainen works in the SPIRIT programme as a Manager in Circular plastics. Unlike the majority of his chemist colleagues at Borealis, Jaakko has his background in logistics. His engagement in the SPIRIT programme actually enables Jaakko to apply his learnings in the logistics and supply chain, and work with environmental issues — also close to his heart.
Going back to the ambitious EU regulations, Jaakko reminds that by 2025, 50% of the plastics packaging must be recycled. This calls for efficiency in the whole value chain and improvements in collection volumes, as well as in the sorting and recycling steps. Fulfilling the numeric target of 50% is not enough, but the quality of the recycled plastics must be so high that it can truly replace virgin plastics in many applications. This brings another dimension for the needed development.
Research activities to accelerate more efficient recycling of plastics
The three key research areas of the SPIRIT circular plastics theme are as follows:
- Maximising the collection of plastics and sorting out recyclable fractions. The SPIRIT programme looks into gathering separately collected plastics and expands the scope to the collection of mixed waste and separating plastics from it.
- Identifying the types of plastics streams eligible for recycling. For Borealis the focus is on polyolefins (polyethylene, polypropylene), but the SPIRIT scope includes also other plastic fractions such as PET, polystyrene and polyamide, to bring in more plastics for the recycling loop. Efficient sorting of plastic waste is a crucial step in the recycling process, having an effect both on the recycling rate and quality of recycled plastics.
- Recycling processes: Increasing the yield of plastic waste eligible for recycling and making the recycling processes as effective as possible. Whereas mechanical process is the primary channel, the chemical recycling processes such as pyrolysis, dissolution or gasification are introduced for the streams that are not feasible for mechanical recycling.
The above research activities aim to replace virgin with recycled plastics, and to reduce the volumes of plastics incineration in the waste-to-energy process. Plastics is too valuable a raw material to be used only once — a closed loop for plastics is a better way in the fight to avoid carbon emissions.
Calling out for expertise on collecting and sorting plastics — and more
The SPIRIT programme is not complete without collective expertise from several stakeholder companies. Borealis brings to the table their 50-year experience on polyolefins, and Jaakko wants to welcome expertise and companies from all parts of the circular value chain, and those dealing with all plastic fractions. “We need an end-to-end vision of plastics recycling and open discussion to see our common challenges. We should identify the most important actions to make plastics recycling work better in Finland. All actors are invited to participate in this discussion.”
To conclude the outcomes of his research theme, Jaakko would like to see that circular plastics will be considered a feasible business. He says: “I see plastics as a kind of a carbon storage, where the raw material and carbon are circulating again and again in new applications and products. Plastics can offer a long-lasting carbon sequestration when it is recycled in a closed loop.” The SPIRIT programme wants to lead the way in the plastics recycling landscape in Finland and help in identifying the right direction.
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