Moving to a sustainable and circular economy is the goal of decision makers, civil society and forward-looking companies like Covestro, but how do we get there?
Here, Lynette Chung, Chief Sustainability Officer at Covestro, discusses what sustainability means to the industry, its value chains and how the European Green Deal will accelerate the move to a fully circular economy.
The European Union has set the objective of becoming climate-neutral by 2050. This is very ambitious, but also fully needed, in order to deliver on the legally binding Paris Agreement, which has a mandate to limit global warming to well below 2, but preferably 1.5 degrees Celsius, compared to pre-industrial levels. The European Green Deal is the European Commission’s overarching plan for making the EU’s economy climate-neutral, by overcoming the challenges of climate change and environmental degradation.
Circularity is one of the key elements for achieving climate-neutrality. Since last year’s launch of the Green Deal, the Circular Economy Action Plan is central to the transition and the Sustainable Products Initiative is one of the major initiatives within it.
The European Commission now holds the pen, and a first Inception Impact Assessment has been published on the Sustainable Products Initiative. Covestro supports the long-term goal of making products more sustainable by reducing their environmental footprint over the complete life cycle, increasing their lifespan, reducing waste and improving use rates of recycled and circular material. The key will be how to go about this, and for this I bring up two important aspects here.
There are wide product ranges on the European market, each valued for their particular functionality or reason, produced with different raw materials and production processes and having potentially different end-of-life options.
Firstly, it is therefore important to consider the value chain perspective and a life-cycle approach when developing overarching product sustainability criteria for consumer products. We believe that sustainability criteria must be developed to suit individual product groups, rather than attempting to use a one-size-fits-all approach. Any criteria need to be supported by solid, science-based methodologies which consider the specifics of each product group, impacts, benefits and functionality as well as the opportunities for reducing the CO2 and environmental footprint of the final products, and their potential for circular business models.
They need to be approached holistically, considering the inevitable trade-offs occurring in the effort to balance different sustainability goals, which will have a different degree of importance depending on the life-cycle impacts and benefits of the product and the value chain. The shorter the use phase of a product, the more important its recyclability will be in terms of its overall sustainability, while for products with a much longer use phase, the energy-saving, durability and potential for re-use and repair, for example, will be predominant.
Secondly, when it comes to what raw materials products are made from, the general discussion around increased sustainability and circularity centres firstly around reducing the amount of fossil-based raw material. In the chemical industry, this can be done by switching to waste-derived raw materials, bio-based raw materials or even using CO2 as a raw material. To achieve this goal, Covestro agrees that increased requirements on the incorporation of recycled content into new products could favour the uptake of secondary raw materials and thereby also encourage the transition into circularity. It is important to bear in mind that any such incorporation should not jeopardize product and consumer safety, and that it has a positive impact over the whole product life cycle, proven for e.g. by LCAs (life-cycle assessments) and similar tools. Availability and access to end-of-life materials is also crucial.
In order to achieve this, efficient technologies and systems are needed to be able to make greater use of end-of-life materials and waste, with technological diversity as a prerequisite. In addition to the traditional mechanical recycling routes, we believe that chemical recycling could be a valuable technology for creating high-quality recycled content at the molecular level, closing the loop of carbon and material cycles in an optimized and energy-efficient manner.
Such processes would also contribute to solving current potential recycling obstacles due to the presence of legacy substances. We welcome that the European Commission already outlined in its Communication on the Circular Economy Action Plan that Horizon Europe will support exploring the potential of chemical recycling.
Similarly, when reusing industrial CO2 waste gas as raw material, we think that the legislator should take this into account as recycled material incorporation in a product.
These are just two aspects of the complexity around defining sustainability criteria for products. There is a strong need for continued dialogue throughout the European Commission’s development of the Sustainable Products Initiative, to ensure its success and its added value on the EU’s and the world’s journey to carbon-neutrality. At Covestro we have a vision to become fully circular and are ready to remain in dialogue.