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Giving plastic a new life

Could plastic possibly become a positive force in the “new world” of the circular economy? Eni's commitment, with Versalis.

by Livia Formisani
05 February 2020
5 min read
byLivia Formisani
05 February 2020
5 min read

From a symbol of progress in the 1960s to a global ecological problem today. We are speaking about plastic, obviously. But what happens to all that plastic after we've finished with it? Recycling plastic is extremely complex and it calls for the complete transformation of production processes. And this is precisely what Versalis, Italy’s largest chemical company and a wholly-owned subsidiary of Eni, has been doing for years.

With 13 facilities, a joint venture in South Korea and a presence in 25 countries, Versalis is a key player in the international chemical sector. Its industrial and technological heritage dates back to the 1950s and it specialises in the production of intermediates, polyethylene, styrenics, and elastomers. Materials being used on a daily basis as the main components in products such as plastic, rubber, solvents and adhesives. 

A three-pronged strategy for the circular economy

Versalis’s commitment towards a sustainable model started in 2012, when the company decided to adopt a strategy that would also focus on biodegradable chemicals, with the company's targets already being met in 2015.
Today, Versalis’s commitment to the circular economy is based on three pillars:

●      the ecodesign of products, with integrated solutions designed to increase the efficiency of resources at every stage of the production cycle as well as to improve the recyclability of products;

●      the diversification of raw materials, with a multitude of projects using renewable energy sources and secondary raw materials;

●      the recycling of polymers, thanks to the development of innovative technologies for recycling plastics and rubber, via internal research programmes conducted in partnership with other stakeholders.

These principles are what drive the company’s five research centres, where over 300 researchers and technology experts work to develop high performance, innovative products from renewable sources (like vegetable oils and biomass), keeping their environmental impact and energy efficiency at the forefront of their considerations.

Sector excellence: producing recyclable synthetic grass

During the last two decades, synthetic grass has become an increasingly popular alternative to real grass for football pitches and even for people's gardens. Currently, at the end of its useful life this synthetic grass is either incinerated, with the consequent emissions of greenhouse gases, or is disposed of in landfill, where it takes many years to decompose.
In November 2018, Versalis launched an all-Italian partnership with Radici Group and Safitex to produce recyclable synthetic grass using a circular model. The linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE, commonly used for food wrap) produced by Versalis, is transformed into a yarn by Radici Group, which Safitex then uses to make a carpet. Rather than using a mixture of different plastics as the raw material, as is commonly the case in the production of synthetic grass, which makes it difficult to recycle, this project uses just one type of plastic. At the end of its life cycle, about 7 years, the grass can be recycled to produce high quality sports bibs, shin pads and elbow guards, as well as garden tools and accessories. 
Each of the companies involved has carried out its own independent life cycle assessment for the project and has obtained the Product Environmental Footprint (PEF) certification, a standard set by the European Commission to “measure the life cycle environmental performance of products or services”. The three companies have also applied for the “Made Green in Italy” certification from the Italian Ministry of the Environment.

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The circular company, the Radici viewpoint.

A 360-degree commitment to sustainability

Recyclable synthetic grass is just one of the green projects that Versalis is currently working on. Versalis is involved in a number of other sustainability initiatives aimed at minimising and offsetting its ecological footprint. For example, the “Bag to Bag” project is aimed at recovering the bags used to package Versalis products onto pallets, and to use it to produce packaging consisting of 50% recycled materials. This year the company has developed an innovative grade of expanded polystyrene (EPS) called Extir® FL 3000, offering the market a concrete opportunity to increase the sustainability of their products destined, for example, for the food packaging and industrial packaging (e.g. electrical appliances, furniture, cars) sectors, and for containers, protective helmets and seats. The special properties of the new recyclable material make it possible to reduce the risk of microplastics being dispersed into the environment while the expanded polystyrene is being used. Another innovative technological project is the production of natural rubber and resin from guayule, a bush which offers a sustainable alternative to the rubber tree (Hevea Brasiliensis). To accelerate production, Versalis signed an agreement with Bridgestone to adopt new technologies for guayule processing, with the Italian company taking the lead on product development.

Furthermore, in November 2018, Versalis acquired the Mossi & Ghisolfi Group’s “green” businesses. This acquisition also included the personnel, assets and resources connected with development activities, industrialisation and the licensing of technologies and processes based on renewable sources, particularly biomass. Finally, Versalis has also signed up to “Operation Clean Sweep”, an international programme aimed at eliminating the dispersion of plastic particles along the entire production and supply chain and preventing plastic pollution in marine environments.