Partners in a circular chemical industry

What sustainability challenges will the chemical industry face in the coming years? What is needed to speed up the transition to circular solutions? Are there still notions that recycled materials are not as good as virgin resources?

21 May 2024

These were some of the questions raised in a panel discussion on more circular solutions in the chemical industry between Christian Lundell, CEO at Arom-dekor Kemi, Jonas Larsson, European Product Manager at Brenntag, Lars Rosell, Co-founder and partner of Vilokan Group, and Erik Gustafsson, Business Project Manager at Ragn-Sells Sweden.  

The chemical industry is still fossil-heavy, and a significant amount of the oil and gas pumped out of the earth is used as raw materials for the production of chemical products. Most of what we see around us has its origins in the chemical industry, everything from cleaning products and lubricants to solar cells, bicycle tires, or kitchen utensils.  

– The need to transition to a more circular chemical industry is extreme. Otherwise, we will never be able to stay within the planetary boundaries, says Lars Rosell, Co-founder and partner of the Vilokan Group.  

One of the obstacles to increasing use of recycled raw materials in the chemical industry is pricing. However, reducing dependence on fossil fuels requires a joint effort. To improve the economics of recycled materials, chemical companies could invest in technologies, while customers can choose environmentally friendly solutions that may have a higher cost but offer a long-term value.

– In the past, we noticed higher reluctance to choose recycled products, but this has decreased over time, says Christian Lundell, CEO at Arom-dekor Kemi.

Virgin raw materials are still much cheaper than the sustainable alternatives and it can sometimes be difficult to convince a customer of the benefits of circular options when the cost increases.

– If the price and quality are on par with virgin resources, it is not at all difficult to sell the recycled ones. Carbon dioxide emissions need to become a currency, a cost that is truly visible, says Jonas Larsson, Product Manager at Brenntag.

From left: Lars Rosell, Co-founder and partner of Vilokan Group, Christian Lundell, CEO at Arom-dekor Kemi, Erik Gustafsson, Business Project Manager at Ragn-Sells Sweden, and Jonas Larsson, European Product Manager at Brenntag

Increased demand on sustainability reporting is one way to make it clearer what the material production with virgin raw materials actually cost. That would be one step towards making it easier for customers and consumers to do the right thing.

– Next-level sustainability reporting will make it more clear what impact a certain material choice has and that will provide a reasonable playing field for recycled materials, says Erik Gustafsson, Business Project Manager at Ragn-Sells.

But it is not just costs that stand in the way of the development towards more circular solutions in the chemical industry. Legislation is not keeping up. Some industries have strict  requirements for traceability, which makes it more difficult to use recycled raw materials. These are often collected from many different sources, which breaks traceability.

– To some extent, legislation and requirements need to be updated, but we also need increased transparency in the industry where we share data and information to help customers choose more sustainable products,” says Jonas Larsson

Another important aspect of increasing the possibilities of recycled products is correct sorting. Customers tend to mix several materials in one tank which makes it impossible to recycle. As an example, engine oil and brake fluid must be collected separately.

– If we can create better opportunities to keep substances separated, we will increase traceability and enable more recycling, says Lars Rosell.

Partnership is a necessary tool for transitioning to a circular economy. Collaboration, between different stakeholders throughout the value chain, make it possible to adapt the product or process to match what the users expects.

– For us to succeed, the most important thing is knowledge and a network. Collaboration with Ragn-Sells makes it possible to find customers with waste streams. Collaboration with Brenntag introduces us to customers that prioritise recycled materials, says 
Christian Lundell. 

Ragn-Sells and Vilokan are jointly building a facility for recycling solvents outside Stockholm. The plant will be operational in autumn 2024 and will have the capacity to recycle 20,000 tonnes of solvents per year.

– When we are about to take this step to advanced process technology, Vilokan has the right expertise for it. And when we are 
about to launch in a market that we are not familiar with, the collaboration with Brenntag is extremely valuable, says Erik 

In the end, one of the most important changes that needs to be done is to keep a broad perspective in the sustainability work.

– We are all part of a system where everything is connected. As organisations, we need to see our impact as a part of that larger system. If everyone thinks like that, the system will probably improve, Jonas Larsson concludes.