INDUSTRY LEADER

Henk Alssema, Chairman, Vita Plastics and BIR Plastics Committee Chairman

“The plastic recycling market is currently in a transition phase whereby existing business models are being replaced by new circular models:”

Henk Alsseme, Chairman, Vita Plastics and BIR Plastics Committee Chairman highlights key trends in the plastics recycling industry, significance of the circular economy and sustainable business models as well as his role in this sector in an interview with Swaliha Shanavas.

You have been active in the plastics recycling sector for about 25 years. Could you tell us a bit about your journey in this industry so far?

I started working in the recycling industry in 1994 and after three years I started my own company, which was mainly focused on trading in recyclables. After a period of 16 years during which I started up a number of plastics recycling firms and took over a number of businesses, I sold my businesses to a listed company in 2013 and led this company as Chairman of the Board. After fully restructuring the company, in 2016 I stepped down from my position as Chairman to develop a completely new vision in the area of Circular Economy that is based on multiple value creation. In the meantime, I bought into Dutch plastics recycling company Vita Plastics BV and in 2018 I set up a new company (vanAfval BV) that is fully focused on the circular economy. On the basis of the principles of circular economy, this business develops and produces end products.

What do you love most about your job and what is the most challenging aspect?

I love the new developments in our market, creating new business models based on the circular economy, that makes me really enthusiastic. But on the other hand, building new economic systems based on the circular economy is also a challenge. It is a totally new system and nobody has a blueprint of the new system.

What are the key trends you might have observed in the plastics recycling industry and how do you think they will impact the sector in the long run?

We are seeing several new trends in the recycling industry. Large waste collectors have taken over many recycling companies in order to process their own collected plastic scrap. In addition, we see that these companies are looking to collaborate with the plastic industry to bring new circular products onto the market. Another trend is that large companies, for instance IKEA, are participating in recycling in order to meet their own raw material needs in the future. Companies such as Unilever and Procter & Gamble have been working on the sustainability of their packaging portfolios for some time now in order to ensure better recyclability. Technological developments continue to be more innovative; pilot factories are currently being built in various locations in Europe where plastic scrap that cannot be processed mechanically is processed via chemical recycling. These various trends ensure that the landscape of the recycling industry will look completely different in the future. Plastic scrap will be processed more often in their own regions and serve as raw materials for products for the local market.

What are your views on the Circular Economy model that is slowly gaining momentum worldwide?

In my opinion, existing business models are no longer sustainable. I think we have to reinvent our industry. We as recycling industry have to take on our responsibility. It is not only about recycling materials, it is about a common approach, in which we work together as waste sector, as recycling community, as producers, packing industry and consumers, building new value chains. Chains that are not only built on value as such, in making money, but that also have a positive ecological footprint and a social one in creating fair trade jobs.

At the recent Geneva convention, around 180 countries (excluding US) signed an agreement to make global plastic scrap trade “more transparent and better regulated”. In your view, what does this development signify for the plastics recycling industry?

As I already mentioned, plastic scrap will be processed more often in their own regions and serve as raw materials for products for the local market. This is good because the demand from “the local industry” is increasing. Manufactures are taking more responsibility to use recycled material, not from a financial driven motivation but from an ecological driven motivation. On the other hand, we also see a demand from the Far East for recycled raw materials. Scrap that was earlier sold to the Far East will find its way to the same continents, but now as finished recycled raw material.

In this scenario, what is the way forward for plastic recycling businesses and what would be the key to success in this segment?

First of all, the recycling industry (in several parts of the world) should invest in production capacity; scrap that was sold in the past to the Far East has to be processed in their own region. On the other hand, there are so many new developments in the recycling industry with many opportunities, not only technological but also in the creation of new business models. Companies that do not want to change will face serious problems.

Many manufacturers are now talking about introducing recyclable products/more recyclable components into their products in the near future. Do you think there is enough material available and that it would be practically possible to sustain this in the long run?

I don’t know, we have to find out. It’s very hard to look into the future, but when I see all the developments in the industry, I’m convinced that a new system will change our society in a positive way.

As the new Chairman of the BIR Plastics Committee what are your plans in terms of making a positive contribution to this sector?

First of all, I think it’s very important that we as BIR and as an industry would like to see that the world of yesterday is not the world of tomorrow. The plastic recycling market is currently in a transition phase whereby existing business models are being replaced by new circular models. This must not paralyse us as an industry; there are opportunities galore for the industry and I think that we as BIR must help our members to become a part of the circular economy. And this should be key for the next period. We will not throw away our old values, but as BIR Plastics Committee we must focus on the new future.

What do you like to do in your spare time?

As a family man I spend as much time as possible with my family. I’m also a sports fan and I very much like to ride for hours on my racing bike.