May 10, 2019

Driving circular economy with the mass balance approach: BASF joins forces with members of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's CE100 network for White Paper publication

May 10, 2019


BASF joined forces with other member organizations of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s CE100 network in a collaborative project (co.project) to promote chemical recycling with help of the mass balance approach. The White Paper titled “Enabling a circular economy for chemicals with the mass balance approach” is a result of the co.project "Mass Balance" to which BASF sustainability experts and several other companies contributed. Co.projects are an opportunity to test ideas in a pre-competitive context to overcome common barriers and increase the pace of change. They are initiated, led, and run by member organisations of the CE100 network of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.


The joint paper addresses the specific situation of the chemical industry and its customers in the transition to a circular economy. It states that currently recycling rates of major chemical products are very low, e.g. 9% worldwide for plastics. Retrieving chemical products is not an easy task because chemicals such as additives, paints or adhesives are often used in complex combinations. However, customers and regulators push for higher recycling rates, and economic solutions for a range of chemicals exist. “The aim of the White Paper is to support the transition from a take-make-dispose economy to a circular model which allows to decouple growth from fossil resource consumption. We want less plastic waste that ends up in landfills and incineration plants, less use of fossil raw material, and a working circular economy in the industry’s value chains”, explains Andreas Kicherer, sustainability expert at BASF.

One of the options is to break down complex, mixed and contaminated products into simpler chemicals to be used as virgin-grade feedstock for new products. An economical solution from an investment point of view is to plug these processes into the existing chemical infrastructure which has over $2.5 trillion in investments worldwide. However, the recycled feedstock will not be physically separate from other raw materials in the chemical manufacturing process. 

Ellen_MacArthur_Mass balance_2.jpg
In the mass balance approach, fossil resources are replaced by sustainable biomass already at the beginning of the production process. The applied share of renewable resources is then allocated to the new product. Image source: "Enabling a circular economy for chemicals with the mass balance approach".

This is not different from other existing mass balance approaches where for example wood fibre certifications are in place to prove that is has been sustainably sourced. The White Paper proposes a standard development frame for a mass balance approach in the chemical industry. “Mass balance is an approach which helps us trace the flow of materials through our complex value chains. Compare it to ‘green’ electricity: consumers can buy green electricity from the grid without having a windmill in their backyard”, explains Kicherer.

The mass balance principle has been practiced by BASF for several years for biomass feedstock (Biomass Balance approach). In this approach, the fossil resources are replaced by sustainable biomass already at the beginning of the production process. In a third-party certified process, the applied share of renewable resources is then allocated to the new product. Based on this calculation, up to 100% of the fossil resources can be replaced by renewable raw materials. Using renewable raw materials helps to save fossil resources and may contribute to reducing greenhouse gas emissions.


Video: BASF's Biomass Balance Approach


“The new White Paper on mass balance will encourage the chemical industry to apply the mass balance approach also to recycled feedstock”, says Kicherer. BASF is piloting the use of recycled feedstock from plastic waste in its ChemCycling project. In chemical recycling, the long molecular chains of plastics are broken down into their basic building blocks by different technologies, e.g. pyrolysis. The oil derived from this thermochemical process can be used for the production of new plastics, replacing fossil raw materials such as naphtha. Chemical recycling of plastics can help reduce the amount of plastic waste which ends up in landfill or is incinerated.

Contributors to the project include experts and members of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's CE100 network, Eastman, Michelin, Schneider Electric, Solvay, Tarkett, UL, and UPM-Raflatac.

BASF has been a member of two of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation initiatives to further advance its existing circular economy solutions since 2017, the “Circular Economy 100” and the “New Plastics Economy”.

Birgit Hellmann
Global Sustainability Communications
Last Update May 10, 2019