Whether you are an SME or a large company, transforming your business from linear to circular does not come overnight. Once you’ve defined your circular vision, where do you start? Where are the quick wins and what are the main challenges to overcome?
For this 15th episode, we welcome Pieter Vanoosthuyse, business development manager for recycled polypropylene at Beaulieu International Group. One year ago, Pieter was assigned the task to transform B.I.G.’s vision for circular plastics into a concrete action plan. One year in, Pieter has some very interesting learnings to share, not only on the importance of circularity in plastics but also on what kind of information and which partners you need for this transition.
Listen to the podcast here:
- Understanding the value chain is crucial: talk to all 8 actors when developing a circular product.
- The greatest impact can be created either upstream (raw materials) or downstream (end-of-life) of the life cycle.
- Get a good inside AND outside-in perspective of your company before drawing up your action plan…
- We need to stop seeing waste as it is now, but as a circular resource.
- Circularity is not just for the big players, as a smaller company you can act much more agile.
- We are producing the circular solutions for tomorrow today, so we need to act now.
Creating positive impact
Pieter’s mission, both in his professional and private life is to have a positive impact. With a background in mechanical engineering, both as an industrial and civil engineer, and in economics, Pieter had a very broad range of knowledge when joining Beaulieu International Group 9 years ago. For one year, Pieter has been leading the Business Development for Recycled Polypropylene.
Beaulieu International Group (B.I.G.) is a world player in the market and one of the biggest textile producers in Belgium. They have 29 production facilities in different areas of the world (Norway, Spain, Australia, China, USA, Canada,…) and around 5000 employees.
Each site has its own products and its own market, and as one group, B.I.G. is organised into 3 major business units: Polymers (raw materials), Engineered Solutions (semi-finished products like fibres, yarns, technical textiles, etc) and Flooring Solutions (end products: soft floorings, like event or domestic carpets or hard flooring like vinyl, parquet).
Polypropylene is one of the most important polymers for B.I.G. but they also use PVC, PET, PE, PLA,…
Plastics and textiles
When looking at the types of raw materials used in textiles, there are two major categories: natural-origin fibres (think about cotton, wool, flax,..) and synthetic fibres (mainly derived from fossil fuels today, but shifting towards recycled and renewable alternatives).
Polypropylene (PP) is a synthetic fibre: you start from a granulate, a small pellet, that gets melted and extruded into fibres or synthetic yarns. PP is one example of a synthetic raw material (plastics), another example is polyester. The main focus for B.I.G. is at PP, and you can find it in a variety of textile products like carpets.
A clear vision
B.I.G. defined the clear vision to become zero impact by 2030 with the purpose of shaping sustainable living, together. Next to reducing their direct impact in terms of emissions, by focusing on machinery, energy savings, and waste reduction, another key aspect is to advance toward a Circular Economy. Implementing sustainable materials is a key factor to enable this, looking at both the possibilities for renewables and recycling. From this followed the challenge for Pieter to set up the new business unit around recycled polypropylene.
If as a company you want to advance structurally, and you look at the full life cycle of your products (LCA), the biggest impact is coming either from the upstream (origin of materials) or from the downstream (end-of-life treatment)
Those are your main playing fields if you want to shift towards circularity.
Pieter’s role was to build this new business from the start. However, in a company with around 5000 people, you’re not alone, everyone plays a role in contributing to Circular Economy. Pieter describes his work as Intrapreneurship within the company.
So how do you get started?
- Start with having a good view from the inside of the company: who are the people within the companies, what are the processes in the different production sites, and what kind of polymers (raw materials) are you using?
- Next, set up some quality metrics, to collect data and understand the picture of where you are today and where you want to be in the future.
- Once the data came in and this picture became clearer, Pieter applied the Pareto Principle: look where you can create the most significant impact first to define the right action plan.
- Crucial as well is to make sure you also have an outside-in perspective of your company. Understand the circular value chain and the different actors in it.
There are already many recycling technologies available, so what is preventing large-scale adaptation? Pieter mentions that there are several things important to set up a truly circular system:
- A clear view of which feedstock is where, and at what moment in time
- Have the right processes in place to upgrade the company’s feedstock.
We need to stop thinking of waste as it is today and start thinking of it as a circular resource. In order to do so, we need high-quality recycling processes, access to the feedstock (volumes!), and the right collection schemes up and running.
Quality rather than volume
Several pledges have been made by the plastics industry to collect & recycle certain volumes of plastics (see also the Ellie.Report of November), but volume is not the only thing we need. For textiles, we need high-quality materials in order to work in textile applications and our extrusion processes. There is still a need to develop the right technologies, both in mechanical and advanced recycling to enable this.
In terms of renewables, the technology readiness level (TRL) is still quite low. However, apart from polypropylene, B.I.G. is exploring some alternatives, like bio-based polyamide and bio-based PLA, and they are also looking into bio-based polypropylene (bio-renewable or bio-circular like used cooking oils (UCO’s)).
Recycled vs Renewable
In Pieter’s opinion, it’s not a question of this or that, the choice really depends on the needs. For example, if the company wants to have a very low-carbon solution, the bio-origin shows in the LCA that there’s the lowest carbon footprint possible. If you want to end plastic pollution and want to avoid incineration, then there is a need to emphasize the circular value chains.
From pilots to production
At B.I.G., they’re looking at different fronts in the circular value chain.
The standard R&D flow is: pilot testing, lab testing, and then upscaling to a small production unit and then going operational. As for recycling, B.I.G. already has products with mechanically recycled content in them, the majority in corrugated plastics but also in woven fabrics. Now they are also looking at what is possible regarding fibres, yarns, technical textiles, sheets, etc.
For advanced recycling, they are looking at setting up several ‘schemes’ in which they can make sure that the materials are recycled at end-of-life. The best example is the REWIND event carpet where B.I.G. ensure to take back the materials at end-of-life so they are not landfilled or incinerated.
Understanding is key
In order to create truly circular products it is crucial that everyone understands the circular value chain. For example, when a company is developing products, they are in between the supplier on the one hand and the customer on the other hand. However, for circular products, you need to understand the entire circular value chain you’re working in.
The circular value chain has 8 actors:
- Raw materials
- Component manufacturing
- The product assembly
- Use phase
If you want to develop something for a circular system, Pieter recommends speaking to all actors in that chain.
The value of a network
To successfully set up a new business around Circular Economy, a large network is key. As Pieter has been working within the company for a couple of years already, he had the benefit of already having quite an extended network both within and outside B.I.G.
However, Pieter thinks it’s also thanks to organisations like Ellie.Connect and the sector federations that you have an important opportunity to meet those different actors that will add value to the circular value chain.
The highlight of the first year
It gives me so much energy to see how we are contributing to this major strategic transformation of the company. Reaching the milestones gives a lot of motivation to continue that track!
Exploration to Implementation
One year in, the focus now is to move forward structurally. The start was about ‘setting the scene’, and defining that ‘Today Picture’, but now they want to transition towards more implementations. Shifting from exploration to implementation.
Small vs Big companies
No matter the size of the company, implementing circularity always comes down to the same 3 needs:
- Eliminate the excess materials, products and designs we do not need;
- Innovate the materials to make them last as long as possible and ensure recyclability: Re-Use – Recycle;
- Circulate to keep the valuable materials inside the (circular) circle.
It’s a misperception that circularity is only for the big players, because smaller companies even have the benefit that they can act more agile.
To finish, collaboration is key for a circular transition. If anybody is interested in certain circular value chain collaborations on the different aspects; from the raw material side to the intermediate or end products, or having the end-of-life collaboration, don’t hesitate to reach out to Pieter: Pieter.Vanoosthuyse@bintg.com
We are producing today the circular solutions for tomorrow, so we need to act now!
So let’s act now, take steps forward and create an impact.