von Imke Rhoden and Andrew Ross

The European Union is challenged with increasing global consumption, growing pressure on resources as well as the uncertainty of critical raw materials. Coupled with the goal to become the world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 there is an urgent need to decouple economic growth from resource use and to ensure a swift transition to circular solutions.

Levels of the value chain: collaboration with urban stakeholders and infrastructure, logistics and waste mining in urban areas, waste collection and sorting, technology development and demonstration in laboratory and within industrial plants. © Covestro Deutschland AG

The project “CIRCULAR FOAM – Systemic expansion of territorial CIRCULAR Ecosystems for end-of-life FOAM” will develop and demonstrate all technological steps required to achieve circularity of plastics in post-consumer applications, using the example of rigid polyurethane (PU) foams used as insulation in refrigerators and construction. The CIRCULAR FOAM consortium is composed of all relevant stakeholders needed to close the circular value chain: manufacturing, production, waste management, technology providers, research partners from logistics, social and economic science, the public sector and citizens.

The waste streams will be upcycled chemically, which means that they will be valorised to become new virgin-equivalent feedstock for the chemical industry to produce new high-performance plastics. In this way, it will become possible to replace limited fossil-based resources by the renewable waste-based ones, thus not only reducing waste, but also becoming more sustainable and making a step forward to climate neutrality.

The project aims at creating a systematic approach that will be implemented in three model regions (Rheinisches Revier (North Rhine-Westphalia)/DE, Silesia/PL and Greater Amsterdam region/NL). The results will include recommendations for further replication in Europe.

In the project, the Institute of Energy and Climate Research – Systems Analysis and Technology Evaluation (IEK-STE) at the Forschungszentrum Jülich applies its experience in investigating the characteristics of energy systems and the consequences of energy transition in the context of transformation and innovation. In CIRCULAR FOAM, IEK-STE will analyse the regional economic characteristics. The results will contribute to the creation of a blueprint model that ensures the transferability to other European regions.


The decarbonization of Europe to become world’s first climate-neutral continent by 2050 requires a rapid transformation of sociotechnical systems. Industrial-Urban symbiosis of circular value chains involving all relevant stakeholders is a promising approach to contribute to a climate-neutral, resource-efficient and competitive economy. This can only work if all actors involved collaborate and any bottlenecks and hurdles are removed.

The selected waste streams containing rigid PU from appliances and construction will be upcycled chemically and valorized to generate new virgin-equivalent feedstocks for the chemical industry. With this, it will be possible to replace limited fossil-based resources with renewable waste-based ones. Thus, not only reducing waste, but increasing sustainability and reducing the dependency and use of non-renewable resources.

Project partners will demonstrate two types of chemical recycling, chemolysis and smart pyrolysis. Both methods have prospects to reduce overall CO2 emissions. These technologies enable the recovery of the main components of PU directly or as intermediates, rather than breaking down the polymer to small molecules which would have to be re-processed in several steps, each requiring energy.

Moreover, CIRCULAR FOAM will develop and demonstrate a complete systemic solution for a circular economy of rigid PU foams from end-of-life appliances and construction waste. A blueprint model will be developed for the implementation in other European regions. Spreading the necessary knowledge and achieving the necessary shift in mindset of all stakeholders along the new circular value chain will be addressed. This requires the developing of a political vision and orientation for the territories involved, as well as the identification of the structures to facilitate and monitor such transition.

Regional approach

A ‘circular territorial cluster’ is a socio‑economic and environmental system composed of relevant actors and dimensions to implement, demonstrate and facilitate the replication of at least one circular systemic solution. The project will develop the analytical foundations and relevant systemic knowledge for a systemic solution approach for building up regional symbiosis clusters in the field of waste management.

The results of the in-depth, intersectoral and interdisciplinary analysis (economic, stakeholder, logistics, consumer, policy and regulatory structures) from the pilot region of NRW in Germany feed into a systematic analysis (agent based modelling and fuzzy mapping) of regional actors, structures, processes and field conditions for two representative material flows (refrigerators and construction waste).

Based on this well-established analytical concept for analyzing regional conditions, clusters and material flows, the interdisciplinary project team strives to identify approaches to close or re-arrange loops for circular symbioses in terms of reusing, repairing and recycling. Based on this, a blueprint model for building up circular symbiosis structures will be provided for the transfer in two follower regions: the Greater Amsterdam region and Katowice in the region of Silesia.

Two of the three model regions display their intrinsic conception of striving towards a climate neutral future and have strategies for circular economies which will contribute to their development plans. One of the main tasks is to develop a generalizable approach that is applicable, scalable and transferable to other regions.

The three regions have been selected due to their distribution within Europe and their variance in patterns and factors which have an impact on the development of circular solutions. This in turn helps us to test analytical frameworks and the blueprint under different conditions. The three regions selected differ in terms of their culture, mentalities, habits, economies, infrastructures, their specific challenges, and political, and geographic backgrounds. These differences in infrastructures and challenges provide an opportunity for the testing of the blueprint developed for a systemic circular solution for feasibility and robustness, before possible transfer to other European regions. From this testing, the project will derive recommendations for policies and implementation structures and draw conclusions which will help to facilitate a governance structure for implementation.

Both NRW and Silesia currently have a high density of energy-intensive industrial companies and are undergoing a deep transformation towards innovation and sustainability, including a phase-out from coal-based power generation following territorial sustainability strategies towards a new, sustainable resource-efficient and circular economic model. Their history of coalmining (as well as fuel- and coal-logistics) and the need to make the transformation to circularity has already triggered cities and regions to create bilateral partnerships.

Comparing NRW and Amsterdam, both regions are striving energetically towards a climate neutral future and have strategies for becoming fully circular which will contribute to their development plans. The two regions have made circular economy the central component of their regional strategies and are equipped with national/regional/structural public investments to support the development and implementation of a circular economy and to trigger private investments.

While NRW and Greater Amsterdam have circular sustainability strategies, they share the same challenge with Silesia: the lack of awareness, knowledge and acceptance of the high potential of chemical recycling to valorise plastic.


Chemical recycling makes it possible to reduce the volume of waste and greenhouse-gas emissions, and it also offers an opportunity to replace fossil-based raw materials. Chemical recycling is a potential solution for turning waste into a precious resource. Of course, the supporting circular logistics (intra and interregional) flows should be organized sustainably, reducing CO2-emissions to minimum levels. With CIRCULAR FOAM, the project consortium set ambitious goals to contribute to the pledges for climate neutrality. It is aimed at a combination of multiple differentiated approaches across a regionally diverse field of the circular economy. As the project has just begun, challenges and opportunities are yet to come.

If you are interested in the further proceedings, keep updated here:


Project duration: October 1, 2021 – September 30, 2025 (48 months)

Budget: €19,192,150

This project is funded by the European Union under the Horizon 2020 research and innovation program under grant agreement No. 101036854.

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