Circular Economy Practices for Low Carbon Chemicals

Detailed overview of innovation with sample startups and prominent university research

What it is

Circular economy practices in the chemical and fertilizer industries aim to minimize waste generation and maximize resource utilization by closing the loop in production processes. This involves shifting from a linear “take-make-dispose” model to a circular model where materials are reused, recycled, and repurposed, reducing reliance on virgin resources and minimizing environmental impact.

Impact on climate action

Circular Economy Practices in Low-Carbon Chemicals & Fertilizers foster sustainable resource utilization, reducing emissions and waste. By recycling and repurposing materials, it minimizes environmental footprint, promotes efficiency, and lowers production costs. This innovation accelerates the transition to a circular economy, crucial for mitigating climate change and achieving sustainability goals.


  • Waste as a Resource: Circular economy practices view waste materials as valuable resources that can be utilized as inputs in other processes. This requires identifying and developing technologies that can effectively recover and process waste streams.
  • Industrial Symbiosis: Collaboration between different industries enables the exchange of waste materials and byproducts, creating a symbiotic relationship where one industry’s waste becomes another’s valuable resource.
  • Product Life Extension: Designing products for durability, repairability, and reusability can extend their lifespan, reducing the need for new production and minimizing waste generation.
  • Chemical Recycling: Advanced recycling technologies can break down complex chemical compounds into their constituent building blocks, allowing for the recovery and reuse of valuable materials.

TRL : Varies depending on the specific practice and technology. Some circular economy practices, such as industrial symbiosis, are already being implemented in various industrial clusters (TRL 7-8). However, the development and deployment of advanced chemical recycling technologies are still in progress, with TRLs ranging from 3-4 to 6-7.

Prominent Innovation themes

  • Waste Stream Mapping and Analysis: Utilizing data analytics and process modeling to map and analyze waste streams in detail can identify opportunities for reuse, recycling, and resource recovery.
  • Innovative Chemical Recycling Technologies: Research is focused on developing new technologies for chemical recycling, such as pyrolysis, gasification, and depolymerization, to break down complex chemicals and recover valuable materials.
  • Bio-based and Biodegradable Materials: Replacing traditional petroleum-derived chemicals with bio-based and biodegradable alternatives can facilitate composting and reduce the persistence of waste materials in the environment.
  • Design for Circularity: Designing products and processes with circularity in mind, considering their end-of-life and potential for reuse or recycling, is a crucial innovation for enabling a circular economy.

Other Innovation Subthemes

  • Waste-to-Resource Conversion
  • Industrial Symbiosis Networks
  • Advanced Chemical Recycling
  • Data-Driven Waste Management
  • Pyrolysis Technology Development
  • Gasification Process Innovation
  • Depolymerization Techniques
  • Bio-Based Chemical Substitution
  • Biodegradable Material Integration
  • Compostable Material Solutions
  • Circular Product Design Strategies
  • Resource Recovery Analytics
  • Waste Stream Optimization
  • Closed-Loop Production Systems
  • Sustainable Chemical Supply Chains
  • Circular Economy Certification Standards
  • Zero-Waste Manufacturing Initiatives

Sample Global Startups and Companies

  • Renewcell:
    • Technology Focus: Renewcell specializes in textile recycling, aiming to create a circular economy within the fashion industry. Their technology involves converting discarded textiles, such as cotton and denim, into a new type of cellulosic fiber called CirculoseĀ®.
    • Uniqueness: Renewcell’s technology offers a sustainable solution to the fashion industry’s waste problem by upcycling used textiles into high-quality fibers. Their closed-loop approach reduces the need for virgin materials and minimizes environmental impact.
    • End-User Segments: Renewcell’s target segments include fashion brands and retailers looking to adopt more sustainable practices, as well as consumers seeking eco-friendly clothing options.
  • BioCellection:
    • Technology Focus: BioCellection focuses on plastic waste recycling, particularly targeting hard-to-recycle plastics like polyethylene films. Their technology involves using innovative chemical processes and microbial biotechnology to convert plastic waste into valuable chemical intermediates.
    • Uniqueness: BioCellection stands out for its ability to tackle the challenge of plastic pollution by converting waste plastics into useful raw materials, thus closing the loop in the plastic supply chain. Their approach offers a scalable and cost-effective solution for plastic recycling.
    • End-User Segments: Their target segments include municipalities, waste management companies, and consumer goods companies seeking sustainable alternatives for plastic disposal and production.
  • Saperatec:
    • Technology Focus: Saperatec specializes in the recycling of composite materials, such as laminates and plastics bonded with other materials. Their technology employs a unique chemical process to separate the different components of composite materials, allowing for the recovery of valuable resources.
    • Uniqueness: Saperatec offers a solution to the challenge of recycling composite materials, which are notoriously difficult to separate and recycle. By recovering valuable materials from these composites, they contribute to a more sustainable and circular economy.
    • End-User Segments: Saperatec’s target segments include industries that produce or use composite materials, such as automotive manufacturing, aerospace, construction, and electronics.

Sample Research At Top-Tier Universities

  • Technical University of Delft (Netherlands):
    • Technology Enhancements: Researchers at TU Delft are leveraging advanced process engineering techniques and catalysis to develop innovative methods for producing low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers. They are exploring novel reactor designs, catalyst materials, and reaction pathways to optimize resource efficiency and minimize greenhouse gas emissions.
    • Uniqueness of Research: TU Delft’s research stands out for its holistic approach to circular economy practices in the chemical and fertilizer industries. They are integrating concepts such as industrial symbiosis, waste valorization, and product lifecycle analysis to design closed-loop systems that maximize resource utilization and minimize waste generation.
    • End-use Applications: The low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers developed at TU Delft have applications in various sectors, including agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and consumer goods. For example, sustainable fertilizers produced using renewable energy sources and recycled nutrients can help improve soil health and reduce nutrient runoff, contributing to sustainable agriculture practices.
  • University of Cambridge (UK):
    • Technology Enhancements: Researchers at the University of Cambridge are focusing on developing scalable and cost-effective processes for producing low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers from renewable feedstocks. They are exploring innovative reactor designs, electrochemical techniques, and bio-based catalysts to enable efficient conversion of biomass and CO2 into value-added products.
    • Uniqueness of Research: The research at the University of Cambridge emphasizes the integration of renewable energy sources and carbon capture technologies into the production of chemicals and fertilizers. They are developing novel strategies for capturing CO2 emissions from industrial processes and converting them into useful feedstocks for chemical synthesis, thereby closing the carbon loop.
    • End-use Applications: The low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers developed at the University of Cambridge have potential applications in sectors such as energy storage, water treatment, and sustainable agriculture. For example, bio-based fertilizers enriched with micronutrients and organic matter can improve crop yields and soil fertility while reducing the environmental impact of conventional fertilizers.
  • National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL, USA):
    • Technology Enhancements: NREL researchers are leveraging their expertise in renewable energy and biofuels to develop innovative processes for producing low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers from biomass and renewable feedstocks. They are exploring advanced pretreatment methods, enzymatic conversion techniques, and biorefinery concepts to maximize the value and sustainability of biomass-derived products.
    • Uniqueness of Research: NREL’s research stands out for its focus on integrated biorefinery approaches that enable the production of multiple high-value products from biomass feedstocks. They are exploring synergies between biofuel production, chemical synthesis, and nutrient recovery to create efficient and economically viable biorefinery systems.
    • End-use Applications: The low-carbon chemicals and fertilizers developed at NREL have applications in various industries, including bioenergy, bioplastics, and specialty chemicals. For example, bio-based fertilizers produced from lignocellulosic biomass can provide a sustainable source of nutrients for agriculture while reducing the need for synthetic fertilizers derived from fossil fuels.

commercial_img Commercial Implementation

Several circular economy practices are being implemented commercially in the chemical and fertilizer industries. For example:

  • Industrial Symbiosis Clusters: Industrial parks and clusters are being developed where companies collaborate to exchange waste materials and byproducts, creating a more circular and resource-efficient system.
  • Chemical Leasing: This innovative business model involves companies leasing chemicals and services instead of purchasing them outright, promoting responsible use and facilitating reuse and recycling.
  • Closed-Loop Production Processes: Some chemical companies are implementing closed-loop production processes where waste streams are reused or recycled within the production system, minimizing waste generation.