From Trash to Treasure: New Research on Circular Economy

Old laptops, refrigerators, and building insulation all contain synthetic materials that are currently unable to be recycled due to the hazardous flame retardants they contain. CREAToR, an EU-funded project, is developing a system in which flame retardants can be dissolved in order for the synthetic materials to be reused in new products, thus generating a circular economy. For this project KLU plans to analyze waste stream supply chains and set up a logistics model.

Plastics in electronic devices and building insulation are often contaminated with brominated flame retardants. As long as this hazardous substance is present, recycling these plastics is not possible. Instead, they must be incinerated. However, the aim of the project is to reuse the materials, for example in the automotive industry. The Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology is planning to wash bromine out of the plastic with a very reactive variant of carbon dioxide and is examining the chemical processes involved.

Logistics of the Waste Streams

But how do the polluted plastics get into these specialized recycling plants? How many plants do we need in Germany and Europe? And when do they start operating economically? Examining these questions is KLU researcher, Moritz Jäger-Roschko. Interviews with more than 30 recycling companies from all over Europe and an exchange of ideas with the project partners have already provided some important answers. “Qualitatively we already have a very good understanding of how the supply chain could look like. We now know what data we need to create a model,” summarizes Jäger-Roschko. The next step is to decide for which types of plastics and waste streams the processes will be defined. By the end of the project in 2022, KLU will have developed a model that simulates these complex processes.

Increasing Pressure on the Recycling Industry

The technology for plastics recycling on an industrial scale has only developed in the last twenty years, but it is becoming steadily more important. Pressure is growing from environmentally conscious consumers. The EU has renewed its Action Plan for the Circular Economy as part of the European Green Deal 2020 and companies are also concerned about dwindling resources. “The recycling industry is developing rapidly and is now ready for such steps,” estimates Jäger-Roschko. “Over time, modern sorting technologies will make it possible to separate many plastics according to type. We have reached a point where closed cycles are possible.” Waste streams, which according to the project application are currently being incinerated for more than 180 euros per metric ton, could thus be converted into valuable secondary raw materials.

CREAToR is part of the EU funding program for research and innovation Horizon 2020, the KLU work package is headed by Dr. Moritz Petersen. The project involves 16 companies and research organizations as well as a public authority from seven European countries. 

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