Pioneering work for the circular economy

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

How can a circular economy for plastics succeed? This challenge is occupying a whole industry, from manufacturers and plastics processors to recycling companies and traders of recycled materials. As the manufacturer of the PLEXIGLAS® acrylic brand, Röhm is also developing solutions and networks for the sustainable handling of resources. One such example can be found at the Elandsfontein site in South Africa, where the extruded variant PLEXIGLAS® XT is produced and recycled.

Sustainability is an integral part of Röhm’s global business strategy. The company is on track for climate-neutral production by 2050. Part of the strategy entails developing and launching new sustainable products and technologies, as well as decarbonizing the raw materials used. The aim is to establish a circular economy for the entire product life cycle that also helps customers and key industries achieve their ambitious sustainability goals.

PLEXIGLAS® acrylic is generally ideal for the circular economy, as polymethyl methacrylate (PMMA) – the plastic’s chemical name – can be recycled by various processes. One of these is mechanical recycling: After clean separation, extruded PLEXIGLAS® sheets are ground, regranulated and fed back into the extrusion process. Because reprocessing of PLEXIGLAS® hardly impacts any of the original properties, products made of the reprocessed material are of the same high quality as those made of virgin material. This means that PLEXIGLAS® offcuts can be turned into new PLEXIGLAS® products time and again.

The material itself is ideally suited, and the recycling processes for PMMA are also established – but a much more complicated challenge is building a functioning recovery chain, involving collecting discarded PMMA from users, separating it from other materials and returning it to recycling companies or directly back to manufacturers for reprocessing. However, Roehm Africa’s experience shows that all the hard work is worthwhile.

 

Roehm Africa sets a good example in recycling

“We have done pioneering work in Elandsfontein: In 2019, we were the first site in the company to convert recycled PLEXIGLAS® XT into solid sheets,” comments Holger Morhart, Managing Director of Roehm Africa. “And we are currently the only company in South Africa that is capable of recycling PLEXIGLAS® XT that is no longer needed.” This is used as a raw material for the especially resource-efficient PLEXIGLAS® proTerra, which is made of up to 90 percent recycled material.

Offcuts from the manufacturing of PLEXIGLAS® products have been routinely fed back into the production process at Röhm’s sites for years. “During a test run in Elandsfontein, we collected around 12,000 kilograms of production waste from our site within three weeks, which we were then able to recycle. If you project that figure over a year, you can see how much valuable material can be reused,” stresses Morhart.

The next step was to get resellers and fabricators on board too. As Morhart explains:

“In the long term, we want to recover 10 percent of PLEXIGLAS® XT residues from our customers. This would make a big difference, as recycling offcuts to create high-quality PLEXIGLAS® proTerra saves the energy and resources that would otherwise have been used to manufacture new products.” By doing so, Roehm Africa is contributing to Track 2030, Röhm GmbH’s sustainability program.

Collection bags and a learning process on the way to the circular economy

Roehm Africa has provided partners with large collection bags for gathering offcuts from the processing of PLEXIGLAS® XT sheets; this ensures that the high-quality, 100 percent recyclable material does not end up in landfill sites as waste but is instead fed back into the value chain following mechanical recycling.

“At the beginning, only a few customers were aware of the possibility of recycling PLEXIGLAS® XT,” says Yolande Kruger, Marketing Consultant for Roehm Africa, describing the difficulties they had at the start.

“When we started, we also received a lot of material that could not be used. The bags contained not just offcuts from PLEXIGLAS® XT acrylic, but also other plastics, metal parts and all kinds of waste. To an extent it was a learning process until everyone had understood that only offcuts from PLEXIGLAS® XT that had been separated from other materials could be taken back for regrinding and re-extrusion at our on-site recycling plant.” Moreover, only PLEXIGLAS® XT can be recycled at the Elandsfontein plant. The internal structure of the extruded material differs from that of cast acrylic. Kruger emphasizes that Roehm Africa attaches great value to retaining control of the entire recycling process in order to maintain its high quality standards.

 

Collection bags for PLEXIGLAS® XT offcuts

Roehm Africa provides customers with large collection bags, which are used to return PLEXIGLAS® XT offcuts for cleaning, regrinding and re-extrusion. Two bags may contain more than 700 kilograms of 100 percent recyclable material.

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Sorting and peeling

The masking film needs to be removed from the PLEXIGLAS® XT offcuts before recycling.

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Ready for recycling

These PLEXIGLAS® XT offcuts from a processing partner are ready for mechanical recycling. The 100 percent recyclable material enters another production cycle instead of ending up in landfill sites as waste.

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

On-site recycling

Strips from the production of PLEXIGLAS® XT in Elandsfontein are directly fed back into the production process.

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Back into the value chain

Discarded PLEXIGLAS® XT sheets are fed into a granulator for regranulation and re-extrusion.

© Roehm Africa (Pty) Ltd.

Post-consumer recycling remains a challenge

To date, Roehm Africa has mainly performed post-industrial recycling, i.e., it uses offcuts from production and processing, but not discarded PLEXIGLAS® XT sheets from shops, local councils or private individuals. “This is not yet feasible. The logistics of post-consumer recycling would be much too difficult,” says Kruger.

Roehm Africa is currently building up a network of local recyclable waste collectors and recycling companies, making a contribution to both the environment and society. “The cooperation with regional service providers is creating new jobs. In Cape Town, for example, we are working with a company that collects offcuts of PLEXIGLAS® XT from plastics processors on our behalf, and then sorts, cleans and granulates them,” reports Morhart.

There are lots of small steps to be taken en route to the circular economy – and Roehm Africa is not taking them alone. The plastics industry in South Africa is in a state of upheaval, and the responsible handling of resources and recycling is also a focus of Plastics SA, which, says Morhart, has expressed interest in becoming a partner.

 

Sustainable material in brand quality

Users are also gradually becoming more interested in resource-efficient materials. “PLEXIGLAS® proTerra’s excellent quality and longevity makes it easy for customers to pick a sustainable material,” comments Kruger, adding that many processors and retailers are pleasantly surprised that Röhm’s brand acrylic glass is also available in a recycled variant.

 

A real eye-catcher

Recyclable and resource-efficient materials can help make shopfitting more sustainable, such as in the form of elegant and minimalistic displays made from transparent PLEXIGLAS® proTerra.

© iStock / TeerasanP

Guaranteed to grab attention

PLEXIGLAS® proTerra's high quality and longevity make it easy for users to choose a sustainable material. The black PLEXIGLAS® proTerra display provides the perfect backdrop for the product and makes it the star.

© iStock / bonetta

Pure luxury

Recycled PLEXIGLAS® proTerra offers users proven quality, such as for modern shop design with wall cladding and shelves in a white high-gloss look.

© shutterstock / fiphoto

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