Make recycling the starting point of production processes

OPINION: In this article,  Ernst-Jan Mul, innovation manager at Renewi, calls for recycling to be made the “starting point” in the production process of new products. 

To achieve more and better recycled raw materials, recycled raw materials must be taken as the standard.

 Ernst-Jan Mul, innovation manager Renewi

By 2050, the Netherlands will be circular. It’s a great ambition which demands hard work from us. The report “Integral Circular Economy” by PBL [2021] shows how big this challenge is. They rightly write that, although recycling is an established industry in the Netherlands, a circular economy requires high-quality recyclate applications.

Unfortunately, the recent cry for help from DSM, AkzoNobel and Friesland Campina, among others, shows that there is not enough good quality recycled plastic available to achieve this ambition. Renewi recognises this complex problem and sees the mismatch between recycled raw materials and current production processes as one of the main issues.

As a matter of fact, the production of products is still geared to virgin materials as the starting point. Recycling is only seen as an endpoint: the last step in the chain after production and use.

We must turn that around! From now on, take recycling as the starting point — literally. Start with recycling as the first process step and take recycled raw materials as the standard on which product lines are set.

The existing recycled raw materials are technically very suitable for a wide range of products. However, they will always be slightly different from virgin materials.  Most current production lines of materials and products are set very precisely to the standard of a small number of narrowly defined virgin materials. Recycled raw materials often do not fit well into this: either physically or organisationally. This is an unnecessary barrier to the application of more recycled raw materials.

Simultaneously, the quality and volume of recycled raw materials must and can be further improved. We at Renewi are working very hard on this, together with fantastic partners since recycling must become just as advanced as production. This is the only way to raise recycled raw materials’ quality.

For instance, with Retourmatras we have already saved 1 million mattresses per year from incineration, and converted them into new products. To further increase the quality of raw materials to produce ‘new’ mattresses, we are developing, together with our partners, new recycling processes to deliver such raw materials.

“I call on recyclers and producers to take a honest look at each other’s processes and discuss what can and must be improved”

That is why I call on recyclers and producers to take a honest look at each other’s processes and discuss what can and must be improved. Investing in the necessary physical and organisational adjustments is necessary to turn recycling the beginning of the chain instead of the endWith this system, we’ll achieve larger volumes, more investments and even higher quality.

Then the flywheel of the circular economy will start turning.

We can and must do this together. Only then will we achieve the 2050 goals.


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