Maurits van Tol: "If the EU can set a good common framework for the whole industry, then we can move from a linear to a circular economy"

23 marzo 2017

Maurits van Tol is Senior Vice President of Innovation and Technology of the Borealis Group. He has spent almost 20 years in the chemical industry holding various international managerial roles. He has a a broad experience in leadership positions in R&D and innovation as well as business development and business management.

Maurits van Tol is Senior Vice President of Innovation and Technology of the Borealis Group. He has spent almost 20 years in the chemical industry holding various international managerial roles. He has a a broad experience in leadership positions in R&D and innovation as well as business development and business management. Mr Van Tol graduated in Chemistry at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He holds 18 patents and has published over 30 reviewed articles. Chemical News had the occasion to speak with him on circular economy and the industry at Identiplast, the International Conference on Collection, Sorting and Recycling of Plastics that was held last February in Vienna organized by Plastics Europe.

In which way, the Circular Economy is an opportunity for the plastics industry?


For me there are two elements to it. First, a lot of plastic now goes into waste after use or it is incinerated and this is no good because it is a wonderful raw material. Besides, a lot of research has been done to optimize plastic's performance. Molecules of plastic can be given a second, a third, and a fourth life. Secondly, by extending plastic's life we are solving a problem for the planet. We cannot be blind to the fact that there's a lot of littering, and we need to solve that. Thirdly, if we can set up the right recycling systems, we can create business from it.

Do you think that the industry taking advantage of this business opportunities?


Yes, it does partly, but there are much more possibilities to explore. Sure, we can use a larger fraction of plastics for recycling than we do today. This is a big opportunity for Europe because technology development and innovation are needed in the whole value chain to achieve a better recycling scenario. The progress made here in Europe can be exported to all over the world.

You have a long experience in management. What is the role of management in making the company move towards the circular economy?


I have 540 scientists working in my group, they are all very smart people who know how to deal with the issues. What I can contribute is not so much on the science but in the leadership perspective. I think I must come up with a vision to share with my colleagues in Borealis and show that vision to the people, which should be focused in circular economy.
Then, our company could help to build bridges between different companies in the value chain. By doing so, Borealis can contribute to spread the message that we like open innovation and collaboration with other companies. Leadership is important for companies, but also for the governments, and in general for all the stakeholders, because circular economy is quite an endeavour. It is a very difficult challenge that we are embarked on and we should get together in a very constructive way if we want to make advances. We need leaders and visionaries.

Do you think that bio-based materials will become more important in the next decades?


I worked quite some time in bio-based materials myself. I was responsible for that in my previous company and I can say there are several issues there. Borealis doesn't want to enter first generation biomaterials. There are a lot of crops that could be used for feeding the people that are converted into biomaterials. We don't believe that is a good thing. We are open to second generation of these materials when you turn agricultural waste into bioethanol and you do a life cycle assessment.
For us it is important to do this assessment and then is when you see whether biomaterials make sense from a carbon footprint point of view or not. It is important to see the performance: you see that many conventional plastics, like polietyrene or polypropylene, have widened their application area so much over the past 30 and 40 years and they are still developing.
By contrast, biomaterials over the last two decades have not made a lot of progress and they don't have the right performance for many applications. Of course, you have things like plastics bags that are compostable, but in other uses you are stuck, it is too limited. In short, the growth and the development of biomaterials has actually been disappointing. The company follows them, me personally too, but we are much more interested in the recycling of conventional materials for finding new opportunities.

Your country, the Netherlands, has a wide programme for circular economy development looking towards 2050. Do you believe in the efficacity of national or European programmes for achieving goals in this area?


I am from the Netherlands, but I don't live in the country anymore so I am not up to date with the new regulations and programmes. But, in general, plastics industry is a big one and to come up with national regulations makes it very difficult for our industry to act because what is right for Belgium maybe it is not for France. That is the reason why we have the European Union. If the 27 countries can set a good common framework for the whole industry, then we can get moving from a linear to a circular economy. I believe more in European action that on national ones. In fact I believe still more in global action but that is a long shot.

Credit: Borealis

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