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Life-cycle analysis shows: recycling is the clear winner

To measure the environmental impact of recycling as precisely as possible, Fraunhofer UMSICHT has developed its own method, based on a detailed comparison between primary production and recycling.

Protecting the climate means closing loops

For 15 years, this distinguished institute has been investigating how Interzero’s recycling activities impact resource consumption and the degree to which the management of materials in the loop can reduce emissions of harmful greenhouse gases. In the Sustainability and Resources Management department at Fraunhofer UMSICHT, geoscientists work together with chemical engineers, landscape ecologists and industrial engineers.

The "resources SAVED by recycling" study impresses with its special methodology: it allows the resource and greenhouse gas consumption of primary production to be compared with the consumption that occurs during processing within Interzero. First, the scientists determine the amount of resources and climate-damaging gases that are consumed or released in primary production. Then they examine the resources and greenhouse gases required for recycling. The difference between the two calculations yields the detailed environmental effect for each individual material flow.

Making recycling activities measurable

As a first step, researchers take a closer look at each individual material flow. Taking polyethylene (PE) as an example, all the process steps involved in making the plastic – from oil extraction and transportation to the refinery to distillation and polymerisation – are taken into account. The same approach is taken to the secondary process: starting from picking up used plastics to sorting and preparation, and then on to shredding and melting in the extruder to make the PE regranulate.

Fraunhofer UMSICHT uses Interzero key figures on recycling for data collection and supplements them with key figures from databases. The life cycle assessment programme "GaBi" calculates the raw material input and greenhouse gas emissions in the primary process and in the recycling process respectively. One ton of polyethylen produced in primary production consumes around 5,226 kg of raw materials and 1,674 kg of greenhouse gases - this compares to savings of 3,870 kg of primary resources and 639 kg of greenhouse gases per tonne of recycled polyethylene.


"Less environmental impact and a more secure supply – there is no reasonable alternative to recycling raw materials. "

Dr.-Ing. Markus Hiebel Head of Department Sustainability and Resource Management, Fraunhofer UMSICHT

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Diane Seydel
Diane Seydel

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