What part does a global manufacturer of recyclable materials such as Covestro play in driving innovation and the further development of materials? How can a sustainable circular economy be achieved? What does the future of plastics hold and what role do designers play in the innovation process? An interview with Dr. Christopher Stillings, Vice President Global Head of Color & Design, and Hans-Eberhard Stein, Industrial Designer at Covestro.
Interview by Thomas Wagner.
Putting the question: an interview with Hans-Eberhard Stein and Christopher Stillings.
Mr. Stillings, Mr. Stein, let’s talk about the future. As a manufacturer of recyclable materials and a player in the chemicals and plastics industry, Covestro would like to push ahead with its transition to the circular economy. In order to accomplish this, you develop high-quality sustainable materials and try to use CO2 as a raw material in the production of plastics. What exactly has to happen to make sure that a large number of production processes can soon become circular?
Hans-Eberhard Stein: The answer is collaboration. We cannot achieve this on our own. We need to collaborate with companies, users and designers, and learn more about their wishes and needs. What questions are they asking? How will a material have to be prepared for the circular economy? We have ideas, which we prepare and implement, but our partners in industry need to think along the same lines and collaborate with us – or conversely, we need to collaborate with them.
But you also regard yourself as a driver of change.
Stein: Absolutely, in the value-added chain we are the initiator, but we need implementers who are willing to think along with us and help us develop – that is the crucial factor.
How do you develop new materials and proposals and how do you approach your partners?
Stein: I have a good example from Australia that shows how this works. Australia is far away, but we think globally. This situation involves the mattress. If I remember correctly, less than ten percent of mattresses today are being recycled. In Australia, there is now cooperation between various manufacturers and Covestro. The manufacturers established a community under the name Softlanding with the aim of ensuring that all mattresses are recycled within five years.
If we then assume that by using cardyon® we have already applied CO2 in the preliminary phase and in line with the principle of recycling, then we’ve already achieved what we want to. Products are being reused in order to close the use cycle. Fossil raw materials are limited, we all know that. If we don’t start, the path will become increasingly difficult and we will eventually get trapped in a one-way street.
Covestro is a globally active enterprise, and we all know that the issues at stake in the circular economy can only be solved on a global scale. How differently do you perceive the framework conditions in an international comparison?
Christopher Stillings: It is really hard to say with certainty who is currently the most advanced. It depends very much on the industrial landscape, infrastructure and legislation regarding the use of certain substances and materials in the countries. The examples that can be cited may not be able to completely reflect the value chain at this stage, because much is still in its infancy. What counts however is that we all have a holistic perspective. It is not enough to just look at which production processes are done differently or where design takes different paths. One must think in complete value-added cycles.
What does that mean in concrete terms?
Stillings: This process not only involves the raw materials we use and the use of the product, but also how energy is generated, how much is consumed and how all the elements and factors interact. The recycling issue must of course be addressed. We need to tackle the raw materials issue with organic-based raw materials and CO2, and we have to examine where the energy for our production processes comes from.
The designer’s task is then to find out how to make the product recyclable, while at the same time achieving the values of good design, the longest possible service life with high emotional and aesthetic value. All of this must be interlinked. At present, we are seeing encouraging projects at both local and regional level, as the example from Australia shows. In China, a collaboration has been established with a mineral water distributor and a recycling company to recycle water bottles. There is still a lot of work to be done, which is unfortunate, but on the other hand it is also good, because there are an incredible number of ways in which we can make a difference. We are far from being able to create a complete circular economy on this planet, but it is encouraging to see how many partners and players in different industries are already testing changes.
What counts however is that we all have a holistic perspective. One must think in complete value-added cycles.Christopher Stillings
Which projects are you most curious about, where is there the most energy, where is there the greatest urgency and openness to suggestions?
Stillings: When I look at the development from Shanghai, i.e. from Asia, I notice that there are very good approaches in the established industrialised countries – mostly in relation to large projects, for example in infrastructure. But I also see great examples in less industrialised countries where people are quicker to try things out – such as with mattresses or water bottles. In Thailand, for example, recycling is performed on a local level using community approaches.
The differences also depend on how intense the suffering is that is caused by air pollution, plastic waste, the throwaway society and climate change. This perception differs from culture to culture and therefore leads to different approaches and infrastructure measures, which in turn lead to knock-on effects for similar projects in other regions.
One of the topics that has been buzzing around in our industry for quite some time now concerns the development of products from sustainable raw materials. This is a friendly weapon that works quite well.Hans-Eberhard Stein
Covestro closely links research and innovation. Where do you see the greatest opportunities, where are you furthest along? And what contribution can design make?
Stein: One of the topics that has been buzzing around in our industry for quite some time now concerns the development of products from sustainable raw materials. This is a friendly weapon that works quite well. Some coatings are also made of sustainable raw materials, which we offer and develop further. In the case of CO2, our buzz word right now, there are many developments. CO2, which is used in polyurethane foam for mattresses, is now also finding its way into fibers for textiles.
… socks made of CO2?
Stein: Yes, yarn and socks have attracted the attention of many people. We were very surprised to see who approached us in this regard. Interested parties ranged from sock manufacturers all the way to the field of public transportation. The latter involved service suits with the appropriate socks. As you can see, this idea sparked interest not only in the chemical sector, but far beyond it, and is initiating change.
Stillings: Monolithic design, such as the design used for a sports shoe, is also very popular. Automobile headlights, in which as many components as possible come from one class of material – in this case polycarbonate – to facilitate the recovery of materials and their recycling, have also met with strong interest. All the designer has to do is select the right material and develop a functional design. But there is more they can contribute; they can develop a vision on a small or large scale, and they can also visualize concepts that add meaning to the entire process.
We are also collaborating with universities and the scientific community on technological solutions, and as soon as there is a technology push, a novel solution, we ask ourselves how this can be turned into a product that someone buys and uses at the end of the value chain. How is it possible to make the whole thing relevant for the user? This is where designers can provide a tremendous amount of help.
We have the material, we have ideas and we have the right people who can transfer ideas from other areas into our world. But we are always looking for channels to approach the right designers.Hans-Eberhard Stein
Do you actively approach designers or do they come to you?
Stein: This channel is not that easy to navigate, which is why we cooperate with the German Design Council. We have the material, we have ideas and we have the right people who can transfer ideas from other areas into our world. But we are always looking for channels to approach the right designers. We network at trade fairs, we work on digital concepts and we have an impressive material data library, which, by the way, is very popular not only among designers.
Have there been projects with external designers or universities?
Stillings: Designers are particularly needed when it comes to mastering concrete challenges – for instance, in terms of logistics and packaging. After all, the work of both designers and chemists is solution-oriented and aims to achieve improvements. The best way to do this is to break away from the status quo and look to future challenges. As a material manufacturer, we are once again focused on the topic of materials and on texture and color, which is also of interest to a designer.
Design also optimises processes, and when it comes to innovation, it is not only materials and textures that matter. How do you manage to combine this diversity with the brand?
Stillings: Of course, there is more to it than designing products. However, the interaction with design creates the creative tension that is necessary for innovations to emerge. Let’s say a designer wants to create a product that, from an engineering point of view, reaches the limits of what is feasible or goes beyond them. He doesn’t back down; he believes that it must work. A material innovation and the vision of a designer who thinks as radically as Verner Panton did with his free-swinging plastic chair, which could only be mass-produced with a new rigid polyurethane foam from Bayer. Covestro is the successor company to the former Bayer Plastics Division Bayer MaterialScience, so if you translate this principle to the circular economy, you can see clearly what i mean. Radical innovations are often necessary, and then you need to ask yourself: How can I design it in so that the end consumer is convinced and buys the product?
Stein: It fills me with great pride to be a Covestro employee because we have so many opportunities to develop materials. A car headlight like this has to show a number of qualities – it has to be crystal clear, scratch-resistant, heat conductive and much more. Such components are highly complex – and this is where Covestro is the perfect partner because it has all the necessary specialists at its disposal. Once we have thought through all the components, the designer will become aware of this and realise that there is someone who can do everything that is necessary – and then transfer this to other projects. We develop “lighthouses” with the aim of transferring them to other worlds. Designers especially don’t classify things in terms of Automotive, Furniture, Construction. They are our translators, the ambassadors of our skills and our materials.
Do you have an example of a “lighthouse”?
Stein: Though this took place quite a while ago, it is all the more exciting now: Solar Impulse, the airplane that flew around the world without fuel. Our CEO Dr. Markus Steilemann met Bertrand Piccard, this obsessive pioneer, and he told him that the nacelle could be made thirty percent lighter. No one had ever made such a request before, and why should they? Nobody had ever dared to make such an insane demand – thirty percent! But: It was done, and we even went beyond that. In short: If we are challenged, we grow with the task. The crazier the idea, the fewer people there may be working on it, but we are curious and obsessed with innovation at that point.
Stillings: And this is exactly what our brand claim “Pushing Boundaries” means.
Pushing boundaries, so for you this means that you want to confront uncomfortable questions, that you want to hear where something needs to be done so that you can push ahead and propel things forward?
Stein: Absolutely. If no one tells us what is lacking or needs to be improved, and everyone pats themselves on the back, saying how we can do it ourselves, then things will not move forward.
Stillings: I would like to add one more word: inspiration. You asked what it takes to position the brand accordingly. Collaboration is one thing. But “pushing boundaries” also means inspiring each other in a collaboration. We want to be inspired by solutions, by concepts, by the designer, but we also want to provide inspiration to others with our plastic, with our innovative materials and with our abilities.
Emphasis in the field of plastics will be more on “art” in the future. The art of making more and more use of plastics where they create sustainable value in a holistic sense and enable the circular economy.Christopher Stillings
In the 20th century, plastics were considered to be the material of the future. Today, the material has fallen into disrepute, although we know that not all plastics are the same. What does the future of plastics look like?
Stein: Plastics are still in demand. We are involved in the sustainable applications that will still be around in fifty years to come, and we will develop further. There will be electromobility and possibly a more social component of mobility. In other words, personal transport will continue to exist, which means that we will have lightweight structures that move us. Plastics are unbeatable in this aspect. As far as renewable energies are concerned, even in fifty years’ time, a wind turbine won’t be much more inconspicuous, however, it will be made of lightweight material.
Stillings: Emphasis in the field of plastics will be more on “art” in the future. The art of making more and more use of plastics where they create sustainable value in a holistic sense and enable the circular economy. If plastics were the material of the future in the 20th century, they will also be an important recyclable material in the 21st century. Artificial – raw – recyclable material: all these three points will be of relevance to our material solutions, with emphasis on its applications. How do we use plastic as an art, manufacturing, and recyclable material? How can we harness it the most sensible, resource-saving and value-enhancing way along the entire value chain? This bears a great deal of potential, and we are already putting a lot of thought and capital into finding the right answers.
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