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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Why Sustainability Professionals Need Chemists

Chemistry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability, but it has a big role to play, particularly in a circular economy. We caught up with Christoph Jäkel, BASF’s Head of Sustainability Strategy, to learn more about how BASF is working to improve our everyday lives.

Chemical recycling and bioplastics have gained a lot of attention, lately. Perhaps it’s related to society’s growing awareness of our plastic waste problem; or perhaps it’s simply a desire to make things that are less toxic and can be recycled. Chemistry may not be the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of sustainability, but it’s relevant for everything from plastic bags to tennis shoes and has a big role to play, particularly in a circular economy.

Christoph Jäkel took the reigns as BASF’s Head of Sustainability Strategy this summer, after holding other strategy roles within the company for many years. We caught up with him to learn more about how BASF is working to improve our everyday lives.

As a leading global company focused on chemicals that enter a huge number of the products we use every day, what does BASF see as its role in contributing to sustainability?

Christoph Jäkel: It is our company purpose to create chemistry for a sustainable future; and our position in the value chains of various industries enables us to develop countless sustainable solutions, together with our partners and customers. Based on the sustainability assessment of our 60,000 solutions, we are shifting our portfolio towards solutions which make a positive sustainability contribution in the value chain. We call them Accelerators, because they help to speed up the transition towards a more sustainable economy; and we have set ourselves the target to achieve €22bn — or more than US$24bn — in sales with our Accelerator solutions in 2025. Moreover, we are pushing for more circular solutions, to decouple growth from the use of finite resources. We are currently working with many partners in the value chain on new circular business models.

As companies move towards a circular economy, one of the major questions has been how to handle our use of plastics. How does BASF see itself responding to this issue with its own products and role in the market?

CJ: Many of the industries we serve – e.g. mobility, construction, electric devices or footwear – have made sustainability and recycling commitments, and we help them achieve their targets. Besides fulfilling aesthetic, performance, quality and efficiency requirements, our plastics solutions become increasingly recyclable or are based on sustainable feedstock. Take footwear, for example: We have contributed to the development of adidas’ new FUTURECRAFT Loop shoe with material expertise and recycling technology. The shoe is completely recyclable because it is made 100 percent of TPU — thermoplastic polyurethane.

For several years, we have been using biomass-based raw material in our integrated production. This enables us to offer our customers certified biomass-balanced products to which the amount of renewable feedstock is allocated. Similarly, we are piloting the use of recycled feedstock derived from plastic waste. We have already produced the first certified chemically recycled materials, and customers have used these in pilot projects to manufacture prototypes — e.g. for automotive parts, food packaging or circuit breakers.

BASF has launched a ChemCycling program. What considerations are necessary when it comes to chemical recycling? What kinds of products is BASF able to make most easily using recycled chemicals?

CJ: Chemical recycling is complementary to mechanical recycling, which is already well established. However, mechanical recycling requires well-sorted waste streams. Chemical recycling can deal with mixed and impure plastic waste streams. This kind of plastic waste is transformed back into an oil through thermochemical processes by partners. This oil can then in turn be fed into our integrated production. We can manufacture basically all kinds of products with this recycled feedstock because it partially replaces feedstock from fossil resources at the very beginning of the chemical production chain. The share of recycled material is allocated to the end product through a third-party-audited mass balance approach. The whole project is very complex due to regulatory requirements, technical challenges and economic considerations. But we are convinced that it can contribute significantly to a circular economy solution for plastic waste, once we will have achieved market readiness.

What are some applications for BASF bioplastics that you think are particularly outstanding and relevant to sustainability?

CJ: The main areas for our certified compostable and biobased biopolymer ecovio® are organic waste bags or fruit and vegetable bags. ecovio can also be used to manufacture certified compostable coffee capsules — a product which was awarded with the Pierre Potier Prize by the French Chemical Industry Association in France in 2017. I would also like to mention the advantageous use as agricultural mulch film. Rather than being labor-intensively removed and recycled, mulch films made of ecovio can be ploughed into the soil after mechanical harvest. Bacteria and fungi in the soil take the carbon from the polymer both to generate energy and to form biomass. The remaining end products after biodegradation are CO2, water and biomass.

As BASF’s new VP for sustainability, what unique passions do you personally bring to the role that may shape the future of BASF’s sustainability strategy?

CJ: I have a passion for people, strategy and sustainability. All three come together perfectly in my job. It’s great to work in a global company that has sustainability deeply embedded in its purpose, strategy and decision-making processes. Facing the global challenges around us, we have to push even harder to live up to our purpose every day.