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With a staff of 150 employees, the Compound Company produces thermoplastic (plastic) raw materials (granulate) for the construction, automotive and packaging industries. Headquartered in Enschede, the Yparex business unit in Geleen produces granulate used to make plastic film for packaging fish, meat or cheese. This plastic is a very innovative material, and its multiple-layer composition can only be seen under a microscope. “Full plastic is fully recyclable, and so is this film,” says Wouter van den Berg.

After studying chemistry, he moved from Nijmegen to South Limburg to work for DSM. One of his first big jobs, 25 years ago, involved a new innovation: recycling carpet. “We were way ahead of our time and built a factory in the United States, only to have it closed down again within two years. It was a total fiasco. Today, everyone is calling for recycling, but at the time, it was difficult.”

When he returned to the Netherlands, he became product manager for Yparex, part of DSM at the time. He stayed on after the acquisition by The Compound Company and convinced the new owner in Enschede to remain at the campus in Geleen. “We were outsourcing much of the research here then, too.” An outspoken, no-nonsense type, the Yparex director has been working at Brightlands Chemelot Campus for more than a quarter of a century.

‘We don’t want plastic is too easy’

During that time, he has seen the industry change considerably. “We have to become circular; this is our ambition and it’s absolutely necessary.” This may sound surprising coming from a producer who passionately believes in plastic. “Plastic is fantastic until it becomes trash. It doesn’t belong in the environment, period, so we have to try to prevent this from happening. And I am fully aware that this defines our image problem. ‘We don’t want plastic’ is too easy. There is no alternative. This is why we have to identify the waste, upgrade it, process it somewhere, and return it to production. It forces us and our clients to think. What kind of waste are we creating? Is it easy to reprocess or not? And even if it’s not easy, there’s no excuse to avoid doing it. Packaging composed of a combination of translucent plastic and paper is a disaster for recycling. This is something we shouldn’t want to do anymore; after all, it’s just based on marketers’ inconvenient whims. In the end, we just have to make sure that plastic packaging becomes fully circular.”

Oddly enough, producers are the least of Wouter van den Berg’s concerns. “The will is definitely there. I was a member of Plastics Europe for a while, and everyone there agrees that this is what we should and will do together. Okay, so it will take some doing to achieve this, when it comes to European legislation, for example.”

According to Wouter van den Berg, former European Commissioner Frans Timmermans has done a good thing with the Green Deal. “It was useful for everyone in and of itself. It just needed to be ratified and expanded with more detail. But then several political parties chipped away at it in their desire to put climate plans through the shredder. This doesn’t help us much in the end. Sorry to say but if this is your attitude, you really don’t see what’s going on in the world. The necessity is being questioned. In industry, you have to think ahead. A factory is written off in 30 years, not 5. This is why we need a long-term vision. That American carpet recycling plant idea was just way too soon. We flushed around 150 million down the toilet there, all because we thought the market would follow. It wasn’t ready yet. I just want to say that timing also plays an important role. If you don’t have that clarity, you can end up creating turmoil in the industry. There will definitely be companies among them that are guilty of this. Or that are only interested in short-term profits. However, most people in my industry do get it: we’re heading toward circular. We’re moving towards a zero-carbon footprint.”

‘Many recyclers go bankrupt from a lack of clarity’

This is why the Compound Company has a roadmap ready. It does need to be facilitated by legislation, however. “We are seeing many recyclers going bankrupt in the Netherlands because they aren’t able to survive now, and because too much is still unclear. This is a huge shame. Companies are being destroyed that will be desperately needed two years from now. As a compounder, we have the advantage of being able to make the transition gradually, but not everyone has that luxury.”

The Compound Company uses an ever-increasing number of recyclates and more and more biomass. “Chemical recycling is constantly undergoing development, and this, in turn, serves a feedstock for us. However, the more clarity there is, the faster things start moving. And they stall when clarity is lacking. Take Black Bear, for example, a company that recycles tires. Their products are designated as waste so they’re not allowed to cross the border, despite the fact that they’re usable products that can be repurposed. You can recycle, but the legal frameworks have to fit, too.”

Wouter van den Berg

“The trash floating in the Pacific is not circular”

According to Wouter van den Berg, sustainability is far and away the most important topic at Brightlands Chemelot Campus. “Everyone is focused on circular and biobased, or trying to make the transition to electrification. Anything to be rid of fossil fuels. Investment funds and growth funds are also moving in that direction.”

He says plastic’s image is “quite a challenge.” “We all have an opinion about plastic packaging. Let us not forget however that most of our plastic applications are actually sustainable applications, such as films to keep solar panels working for 25 years, pipes and cladding used in construction that are designed to remain intact for decades, car parts that must last 300,000 miles. And all of these applications have the lowest conceivable carbon footprint. Plastic has gotten a bad reputation because people associate it with trash floating in the ocean. And this isn’t good, but plastic as waste is a small part of the big-picture problem. We have to step away from the idea that we should just make everything biodegradable, so it disappears, and we don’t see it anymore. I have also seen this shift in thinking among partners of mine who are removing fishing nets from the sea. Their reasoning isn’t so much because of the problems it causes for fish, but because you can retrieve hundreds of tons of these nets from the sea at a time, and still do something useful with them such as making new nets or other products. Recyclate doesn’t have to be made from oil; it’s that simple. And you can almost see the CO₂ emissions dropping to nearly zero.”


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