What are the opportunities and risks for our industry in North Rhine-Westphalia in the topic of circular economy? This was the central question of the exchange of experiences of ProduktionNRW on January 20, 2022, which took place within the framework of the NRW industry initiative for decarbonization. The R-Cycle initiative from Troisdorf presented the possibilities around the digital product passport, which could make a circular economy via the recycling of plastics possible in the near future, and the VDMA addressed the opportunities and risks of the circular economy.
That’s what’s in it: More than 300 billion euros per year for the industry
The EU is taking the studies of climate researchers and scientists seriously and plans to transform the whole of Europe into a sustainable continent by 2050 via the Green Deal. Climate neutrality and the circular economy are at the top of the political agenda. In her presentation, VDMA expert Hannah Lena Harlos, VDMA Environment and Sustainability Officer, showed what opportunities are opening up for mechanical engineering:
- Circular economy is developing into a global megatrend.
- Changing product and production requirements call for new technological solutions from mechanical engineering and the plastics industry.
- The circular economy creates space for new business models, such as take-back systems and operator models, or also leasing, sharing, etc.
- With the interconnectedness of mechanical and plant engineering with almost all industries, climate-friendly technologies offer economic and ecological market potential.
What this could mean in figures could be gleaned from a study conducted by the VDMA in collaboration with Boston Consulting: The market potential of decarbonization is estimated at more than 300 billion euros per year by 2050. In the workshop, too, the participants tended to find more opportunities than risks on the digital whiteboard: New processing and recycling plants, new innovations and technologies, cost savings with rising raw material prices, more independence from raw material imports, a positive image, all the way to meeting EU taxonomy to maintain confidence for banks and private investors.
This is what it’s all about: Circular economy replaces linear economy
The circular economy is about exploiting all possibilities to keep raw materials in use cycles for a very long time before they are thrown into the landfill. It is a completely new approach that runs counter to the linear economy we are familiar with today. Instead of “use” and “throw away,” in the future it will be “repair” or “upgrade.
The life cycle of a product is to be extended in order to reduce mankind’s high consumption of raw materials globally, which is partly responsible for around 50 percent of global CO2 emissions. Repairable, recyclable, reusable, recyclable and modernizable: according to the ideas of politicians and scientists, this is how future products should be designed and constructed for a circular economy. Mechanical engineering and the plastics industry are enablers of this circular economy, as the following example shows.
Plastics industry: digital product passport enables grade purity
In its Green Deal, the EU sets clear targets for plastic packaging to be recyclable by 2030. The EU Commission is also already considering a plastic tax. Every plastic – more than 200 different types of plastic are known today – has different properties or contains different ingredients. Each of these types of plastic would have to be recycled differently, which would be far too expensive to be economically viable. Therefore, the different plastics must be separated by type at the disposal company.
Industry 4.0 makes sorting by type possible: The R-Cycle initiative from Troisdorf in North Rhine-Westphalia is committed to establishing a digital product passport and presented the technology to participants at the event. This involves an ident (marking like a kind of QR code) that is printed on the plastic. This ident is renewed every time the plastic is changed and further processed, and then produces a data record each time, which is uploaded to a data cloud. The actual passport is stored in this cloud, which is familiar from Microsoft One-Drive or Apple iCloud.
By tracking the object along the value chain of the plastic and aggregating documentation of the changes made to the object, the DPP (digital product passport) is created. The information required for single-variety recycling is stored in this passport. This includes the ingredients of the plastic, the tracing of the material or even how many recycled parts were already present in the plastic. In this way, the cloud-based data, which is the digital twin of the ident markings, ensures a sorted process at the end of the life cycle.
R-Cycle is also working towards an open and globally applicable traceability standard, which includes standards such as API, GTIN/LGTIN or EPCIS. The technology behind R-Cycle is based on GS1 standards – the leading global network for cross-industry process development. DPP implementation begins with serialization and identifiability of plastics. The standards then make a common infrastructure usable, but one that key market participants would first have to agree to.
Networking the players along the plastics value chains is therefore particularly important. Because in order to introduce such standards in Europe, R-Cycle needs partners who carry out pilot projects and also want to recycle in order to prove their feasibility. For its commitment, R-Cycle was awarded first place in the German Award for Sustainability Projects in 2021.
Good starting position: Recycling as the first milestone for more circular economy
Recycling in Germany has already been working in individual sectors for years: Under the Packaging Act, a recycling rate of 85 percent currently applies to sales packaging made of paper. In 2019, around 2.6 million tons of glass from used packaging were recycled throughout Germany. The recycling rate here amounts to 84 percent. For household batteries, there are established recyclers to recycle lead in particular. In the future, valuable metals such as cobalt, lithium or silver will also be recovered from lithium batteries of electric cars, e-bikes and smartphones.
The technologies for the circular economy are complex, which is why the cutting-edge technologies of German mechanical and plant engineering will be in demand to develop solutions for a functioning circular economy. In mechanical engineering, the first pioneers from NRW are setting out on the road: pump manufacturer WILO SE from Dortmund is taking back old pumps. R-Cycle’s recycling technologies could now establish another milestone in plastics recycling.
NRW Industrial Initiative for Decarbonization: Successfully Networked
Networking is also where the idea of the NRW Initiative for Decarbonization comes in: The Kompetenznetze ProduktionNRW and Kunststoffland NRW e.V., in cooperation with Siemens Energy Global GmbH & Co. KG launched the initiative in the summer of 2021. It aims to promote exchange as well as knowledge transfer and proactive action around environmentally friendly technologies and green innovations. To this end, events will be offered on the three selected topics of circular economy, lightweight construction and energy efficiency in 2022. The events are open to all interested parties.
The event was organized by ProduktionNRW and Kunststoffland NRW e.V. in cooperation with Siemens Energy Global GmbH & Co. KG. ProduktionNRW is the competence network of mechanical engineering and production technology in North Rhine-Westphalia and is implemented by VDMA NRW. ProduktionNRW sees itself as a platform for networking, informing and marketing companies, institutions and networks among themselves and along the value chain. Significant parts of the services provided by ProduktionNRW are funded by the European Regional Development Fund (ERDF).