May 2022


Executive Viewpoint: Maire Tecnimont and the second wave of the circular economy

The circular economy has already entered the public’s consciousness, and consumers are increasingly aware of the urgent need to recycle plastic, with the practice becoming more widespread than ever.

Folgiero, P., Maire Tecnimont

The circular economy has already entered the public’s consciousness, and consumers are increasingly aware of the urgent need to recycle plastic, with the practice becoming more widespread than ever. We are now in a “second wave” of the circular economy, in which we face two challenges:

  1. Increase focus on hard to recycle resources
  2. Incorporate the circular economy directly into product and process design.

Technology will be the key asset as we move into the second wave of the circular economy. First, upcycling technologies will be essential to succeed in meeting the world’s booming demand for recycled plastic. Unfortunately, recycled plastics are often poor quality. Pure mechanical recycling degrades the material, whereas the upcycling of plastic waste through chemical additives is necessary to regenerate polymer back to its virgin state. The result is a high-quality material that can be used in manufacturing industrial products. Consequently, chemical recycling technologies will be critical for hard to recycle plastics.

Maire Tecnimont’s green chemicals unit NextChem has introduced a proprietary technology called MyReplast that can transform both consumer and industrial plastic waste material into a secondary raw material with physical and chemical characteristics and mechanical properties that allow it to substitute virgin polymers from fossil sources.

Additionally, we are also patenting our chemical recycling technologies to cope with the increasing need to avoid landfilling of hard to manage plastic wastes.

It is equally important to recover the carbon and hydrogen (H2) already sequestrated in the non-recyclable plastics and the dry part of the municipal solid waste. Our company is launching several projects in Italy and abroad to produce H2 from plastic and dry waste. This “circular H2” is not green, not blue and not purple, but it is very low carbon. It is a way to break the ice and show society that we do not need to wait until 2050 for the H2 economy.

The big issue for green H2 is not technological readiness but the broad availability of renewable electrons already needed to switch off coal-fired power plants. Furthermore, renewable electricity is expected to become the main power source in sectors like heating and transportation, where fossil fuels dominate.

In Europe, there is much debate about which electron color can be produced by nuclear energy. Unlike France, Italy and Germany are taking an opposing view. There is an overwhelming demand for electrification, which must be met if we want to cope with ambitious climate change targets. We need to produce renewable electrons to switch off power plants, for light mobility and to produce renewable electrons to convert to H2. There is, therefore, much competition over the availability of a sufficient amount of renewable energy to enable H2 to happen.

Limited amounts of green electrons may delay the introduction of green H2. This bottleneck of green electrons is already visible in Italy, which must build 70 gigawatts (GW) of renewable energy by 2030 but installs fewer than 1 GW/yr. Overall, waste management and circular economy must be part of the solution.

The second challenge of the second wave is the need for the so-called “eco-design” of products to enable as much reuse and recyclability as possible. This is a significant traversal effort to change the manufacturing paradigm from its fundamentals.

The circular economy will be a new mindset to reconceive all industrial processes that will force companies to think outside the box in terms of collaborating across sectors. The circular economy is about connecting dots. It is about a refinery that manages waste or a power company that embraces ammonia and methanol production from electrons. Everyone must go beyond their comfort zone and collaborate differently. This is a big challenge, and we need to join forces. There is no room for rhetoric.

The inventor of polypropylene was an Italian chemist named Giulio Natta, who won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1963. Maire Tecnimont has inherited some of this chemical engineering DNA. Thanks to this patrimony, the company can be part of a circular economy that creates a new, more responsible way to use and conceive plastic. HP

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