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Mass balance workshop: experts discuss recycling and circular economy at BASF in Ludwigshafen
In May, the CE 100 (Circular Economy 100) initiative of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation released a white paper entitled “Enabling a Circular Economy for Chemicals with the Mass Balance Approach”. It explains how the mass balance approach facilitates the use of bio-based or recycled feedstock in the production of chemical products. The paper was the result of the mass balance co.project (collaborative project), which BASF sustainability experts and other companies contributed to.
“In this workshop with experts from various international organizations, we wanted to build on the foundation of the white paper to map out and initiate the next steps towards a circular economy with the mass balance approach,” says Lars Kissau, head of strategic planning at BASF.
The chemical industry uses a small number of raw materials to create tens of thousands of different products. The lion’s share of chemical production starts in the steam cracker, where steam is used to split or “crack” naphtha, a long-chain hydrocarbon, into smaller molecules. These molecules then serve as the building blocks for downstream production. They include, for example, hydrogen, methane, ethylene and propylene, which are mainly processed into plastics, coatings, solvents and crop protection products.
The principle is therefore similar to when consumers buy “green” or “clean” electricity. Although the consumers cannot be certain that the electricity they use in their homes has come directly from renewable sources, the overall share of green energy in the grid rises in step with demand. In the chemical industry, renewable or recycled feedstock is added at the beginning of the production process and allocated to the end product. This calculation-based principle offers multiple advantages: It reduces greenhouse gas emissions and fossil feedstock inputs, while the quality and properties of a product remain the same. As a result, the products can be processed exactly like conventionally produced materials. There is therefore no need to adapt formulations, plants or processes. And customers who buy mass-balanced products can use them as they would traditional products, while benefiting from the same level of quality.
Independent institutes audit the allocation (i.e., how the volumes of the sustainable raw material are mathematically assigned to the final product). However, at the moment, experts are still using different methods – also known as standards – for auditing and certification.
“In this workshop, we took important first steps towards harmonizing and standardizing the allocation method and the certification for mass-balanced products,” says Andreas Kicherer, circular economy expert at BASF. “Standardization will give the mass balance approach more credibility within the customer industries and enable greater transparency in communications with customers.”