Boosting circularity: How the industry is driving sustainability

Recycling has a huge potential to reduce environmental impact. [Photo: Flickr / Lydia]

This article is part of our special report Nonwovens target more sustainable future.

The European Union is betting big on circular economy initiatives that boost recycling and reuse while decreasing resource consumption. But ambitious policies need industry buy-in to work and they appear to be getting it already.

In March, the European Commission published the Circular Economy Action Plan, a package of initiatives that aims to double the EU’s use of recycled material this decade, increase GDP and contribute to the bloc’s climate agenda.

Among the raft of measures, the Commission wants to incentivise manufacturers to design products that last longer and can be recycled or reused, but also grant consumers a “right to repair” for their purchases.

The plan tackles a number of sectors, including electronics, plastics, buildings, packaging, batteries and textiles, the latter of which is among the biggest consumers of raw materials and a significant greenhouse gas emissions producer.

At a virtual event organised by EDANA, an association group for the nonwoven industry, Paola Migliorini, a senior Commission official who has oversight of the action plan, described how ratcheting up circularity will have an across-the-board impact.

“We are using way too many resources in respect to what we have available. Three times that one planet can give. This creates up to 90% of biodiversity loss. By 2050, waste generated could increase to 70%,” she warned.

Migliorini also explained how the strategy aims to extend eco-design principles beyond energy-intensive products and implement a “digital product passport” that will give recyclers and consumers vital information about an item’s composition.

In terms of textiles, the Commission intends to make sure EU countries collect waste textiles separately by 2025 so that they can be recycled or reused to a greater extent than they are currently.

The EU executive is also working on an Extended Producer Responsibility scheme (EPR) for textiles, under which producers would be tasked with making sure their products are disposed of in the correct manner.

EPRs are designed to incentivise producers to make their products easier to recycle or reuse, as they are held financially or physically responsible for their fate. The Commission’s textile EPR is still on the drawing board and a list of products still needs to be finalised.

Ready, willing and able

The Commission’s plans appear to have fertile ground in which to grow, as there is “clear awareness and engagement about sustainability of products” in the nonwovens sector, according to EDANA head Pierre Wiertz, who nevertheless warned that “circularity is one of the most complex pillars of sustainability strategies”.

Plenty of challenges but also opportunities for improvement loom large. Nonwoven products include disposable items like wet wipes and diapers, both of which raise challenges when it comes to end of use and for which solutions are quickly being developed.

Experts on the virtual panel explained how harmonising standards when it comes to degradability and compostability is part of the solution, as that will allow manufacturers to sell products that are fit for the entire market.

Abby Turner and Eduardo Alvarez of Dow Health and Hygiene added that “hygiene products normally include several components, so recycling requires multiple streams. They also produce low-quality recyclates.”

That is why the sector is looking at improving specific points of the value chain, in an effort to sell products that can be easily recycled, reused or disposed of in an environmentally friendly way.

First, there should be a “designing with the end in mind” mantra, according to Turner, who explained that, in the case of diapers, the number of polymers used to manufacture them can be reduced so as to make recycling simpler and more cost-efficient.

Mechanical recycling requires clean waste streams in order to function well, so authorities should make sure waste is collected correctly.

“Serious inroads are being made. Multiple technologies are being implemented in various regions around the world,” the two experts from Dow concluded.

Innovative streak

Another option to reduce material consumption and boost recycling is to use waste products to create new goods. Bio-polyethylene can be produced using run-offs from the paper industry, which can reduce CO2 emissions drastically if done in a sustainable way.

Stefan Roest and Gustaf Tobieson from Austrian chemical firm Borealis explained how that same process can be used to make renewable polypropylene (PP), a material used in the automotive, energy, healthcare and household goods industries.

PP requires oil-rich waste streams for feedstock and this puts it in direct competition with the transport sector, which also wants to utilise the likes of used cooking oil to make second-generation biofuels.

“This is the first step towards decoupling from fossil fuel feedstock wastes by using second-generation feedstocks,” Tobieson insisted, adding that third-generation sources, which include algae and captured CO2, also have a future.

In order to scale up the use of waste streams, Borealis suggests initially mixing renewable materials with fossil fuel inputs, but ensuring that both are recorded for book-keeping purposes. The amount of renewable input can then gradually be increased.

Rupesh Khare, lead scientist at Birla Cellulose, described how chemical recycling could unlock even greater levels of circularity, by producing recyclate material that is of the same quality as virgin material.

“Mechanical recycling is suitable for low-grade products, it is more associated with down-cycling, as it makes fibres weaker,” Khare explained, adding that chemical processes still need to be commercialised.

The challenges again include making sure waste textiles are collected and sorted in the right way before recycling, as well as technical issues like how to deal with dyes and synthetic blends in clothing.

But Khare was adamant that his work will continue to seek answers to those hurdles, as “upcycling of textile waste is a socially rewarding opportunity.” The viscose fibres, produced with recycled content, provide opportunities for use in nonwoven fabrics.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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