The first mile is the hardest There are huge challenges in setting up end-of-life supply chains for polyurethane materials. Walther Ploos van Amstel of the Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences spoke to delegates at UTECH Europe about the collection situation.
Collecting post-consumer polyurethane for recycling efficiently, sustainably and cost effectively represents a significant challenge. Both the industry and wider society will need to find answers to these problems if widespread recycling of PU is to be a reality.
At the heart of the problem is getting sufficient volume from thousands of addresses to collection points, and from there to recycling plants, in a predictable way. Not only do we need to reverse-engineer logistics for each broad product segment but also each logistics chain is likely to be different. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach. This almost certainly means there will be a different route for polyurethane waste from construction sites and for consumer products such as old refrigerators, mattresses and furniture.
An additional issue is the fact that each of these different routes has to generate good-quality product flows. The quality of materials that is currently obtained is often too poor to process.
Long payback times
Yet for efficient recycling to take place, we need massive volumes of raw materials. This will require making large investments that are likely to have long payback times of 10, 20 or even 50 years. For recycling to be a successful source of raw materials for reprocessing, we will need stability in regulations. This could be difficult in a world where there are European, national and local elections at least every four or five years. Each new administration may have its own ideas about what circular policies should look like, with the resulting uncertainty making long-term planning difficult.
I predict that the reverse logistics supply chains that develop will be based on close relationships between companies and the consumers and locations that create the waste. There are several features that will make the first part of the chain critical. First of all, future collection needs to be planned based on open data; where do we expect waste to come from?
Once collected, the materials will need to be pooled together to enable regular deliveries to recycling plants. Pooling will help to take some of the variability out of the supply of old refrigerators, but we need to be able to find a way to economically match the supply of failed refrigerators with the demand for them as raw materials for further processing. The same is true for other polyurethane products.Mile one
The first mile is important, and the collection technology needs to be clean and safe and have little impact on the wider environment. Here, intelligent transport systems could help make reverse logistics flows more efficient.
In the European Union, about 80% of each truck driver’s time is spent inside cities, and the predictability of city logistics is lower than that on the motorway. While drivers lose 4-5% of their time in congestion on the motorway, in cities up to 44% of their time is lost in traffic. We should think about a system that can handle small-scale, very dynamic, very volatile collection patterns. If we can take slack out of such delivery networks, there are efficiencies to be won.
The European Union's Physical Internet programme may help us to develop synchromodal approaches that use the cheapest and most appropriate reverse supply chain. This incorporates the idea of packet switching to ensure that, just as information finds its way across IT networks and the internet efficiently at the appropriate speed, the same can be applied to physical containers.
But as we move the scrap closer to the recycling plants, we need a different way of transporting it. This could involve slow mobility that uses energy-efficient barges or trains to carry large volumes for processing at a steady rate. This would help keep the carbon dioxide generated by transportation to low levels. Ideally, society will need a logistics system that does not create more CO₂ than we are going to save by reprocessing the scrap that is being carried.
To do all of this, we will need new ways for companies to collaborate. It is unlikely that the current models of companies of about the same sizes interacting with each other are set to change any time soon. We will need to find a way to enable large and very small companies to work together fairly. We need to develop a culture that builds trust, open communication and mutuality.
For collaboration to work, three things are needed. Strategic elements should be aligned, business cases should fit together, and companies need the right partners. Companies need the right partners to get into the nitty-gritty detail. They also need to align cross-functional activities. By aligning processes both within and between companies, it should be possible to reduce costs. There will need to be joint decision-making at strategic, technical and, often, operational levels between collaborating companies. It will also be critical to track what is going on with joint planning and control.