Pioneer Philippe von Stauffenberg wants to put a stop to poverty-stricken children wandering the rubbish tips of central America. He’s doing that through chemical recycling

With a grandfather and great uncle who were executed for attempting to assassinate Hitler, rebellion would appear to run in the veins of plastic pioneer Philippe von Stauffenberg.

His grand uncle was Claus von Stauffenberg, who attempted to kill Hitler on 20 July 1944 by planting a bomb under his table. His grandfather Berthold von Stauffenberg was one of the co-conspirators in the assassination attempt.

“My grand uncle was killed that day and my grandfather was put on trial and hung two weeks later,” says von Stauffenberg. “For quite some time in Germany we were considered traitors, but that all changed when people realised the extent of the atrocities.” The story went on to inspire the movie Valkyrie, in which Tom Cruise played Claus.

Von Stauffenberg’s own, admittedly smaller, rebellion is against the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of flexible plastic incinerated every year.

As the CEO of UK-based Greenback Recycling Technologies, he wants to take an axe to that figure – and he won’t let red tape get in his way. His straight- talking approach – he takes a swipe at Boris Johnson and food companies for cutting corners on the environment – suggests he isn’t one for diplomacy.

But what he lacks in diplomacy, he makes up for in determination. He’s already opened one recycling plant in Mexico and plans to do the same in the UK this year, with the eventual aim of building 300 plants.

Backed by high-powered supporters, including Nestlé and Grupo Bimbo, he ultimately aims to create a closed loop for flexible plastic.

It’s a particularly brave ambition given that large-scale ventures such as the Morrisons-backed Yes Recycling plant in Scotland have bitten the dust. But the recent launch of Greenback’s recycling plant in Cuautla, Mexico, proves it’s more than just a pipe dream. The facility uses chemical recycling to turn scrap plastic into packaging for use in the food industry.

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Greenback has opened a recycling plant in Mexico that uses chemical recycling to turn scrap plastic into packaging for use in the food industry

Personal connection

There a personal connection for launching his first plant there, rather than closer to his current home of London. “I grew up in Latin America and plastic is a real issue there, driven by poverty,” he explains.

Children are reported to scour garbage dumps in search of materials such as plastic bottles, which are sold to recycling facilities. Greenback is playing its part in putting a stop to that. “Because we control who we buy material from, we can make sure it isn’t children selling material because they are in poverty,” he says.

His mission has already attracted the attention of fmcg giants. The opening of the Mexican recycling plant has been supported by funding from Nestlé. “Nestlé is a global company, they can’t afford to comply with all the regulations in Europe and then have a heap of shit happening in other countries,” he says. That message seems to be hitting home: Greenback is now talking to Nestlé’s largest rivals.

And von Stauffenberg is certainly persuasive. He first made his mark in plastic recycling 16 years ago as founder of Der Grüne Punkt (the Green Dot) – a German licensing body that is the equivalent to, and part owner of, UK-based environmental services provider Valpak.

“Because we control who we buy material from, we can make sure it isn’t children selling material because they are in poverty”

He saw some clear benefits of the German system. “In Germany, companies pay all the money that is used to collect material into a common pot, whereas in England you are basically buying a solution,” he says.

Von Stauffenberg points out how the UK’s Packaging Recovery Notes (PRN) system matches demand for PRNs with availability: “If there is more demand than availability, the price goes up and vice versa. The problem is, the money doesn’t actually go into financing the recycling itself.”

But the German system isn’t perfect. Von Stauffenberg became disillusioned by the hundreds of thousands of tonnes of plastic that were still ending up in smoke, or in the hands of shadier sectors of the industry.

Chemical recycling and the Plastic Packaging Tax

  • Changes to the Plastic Packaging Tax could open the door to wider chemical recycling for food packaging in the UK.
  • The Plastic Packaging Tax, which came into force in April 2022, is currently applied at a rate of £210.82/tonne on plastic packaging that contains less than 30% recycled plastic.
  • For now, chemical recycling can’t contribute to the 30% recycled content threshold.
  • That could all change thanks to a government consultation on changes to the plastic tax, announced in May.
  • HMRC said it wanted to lift the red tape that makes it uneconomic for the industry to invest in chemically recycled plastic. If adopted, the new “mass-balance approach” could shake up the sector.
  • Opponents including the Green Party claim chemical recycling is energy-intensive and encourages pollution from the petrochemical industry.
  • But bodies including INCPEN (Industry Council for Packaging & the Environment), OPRL (the On-Pack Recycling Label scheme) and the FDF have urged the government to adopt the changes as soon as possible, saying they are vital in allowing companies to hit their environmental targets.

“One thing that really bothered me was we were saying to people ‘give us your money and we will take care of your packaging’,” he says. “Meanwhile about 60% of the plastic was being incinerated or exported to the far east. Who knows what was done with it there?

“You could buy yourself someone who would put their stamp on and say ‘yes, we recycled that material’.”

So, following a stint as chairman of UK-based sustainability company Plastic Energy, von Stauffenberg set his sights on solving that problem with the launch of Greenback in 2018. He wanted to not only offer greater transparency, but address the technical issues that had made chemical recycling uneconomic.

“When I left Plastic Energy I knew I wanted to get rid of the need to incinerate plastic waste, the heavily contaminated plastic that was really difficult and uneconomic to recycle,” he says.

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So Greenback was born – billed as the first industrial, fully circular value chain for flexible post-consumer packaging. It uses microwave technology to convert flexible plastics into pyrolysis oil, which can be used as recycled content in new food packaging.

Crucially, Greenback processes the plastic into oil at plants that sit beside existing recycling centres. This addresses the inefficiencies associated with shipping flexible plastic waste – most of the time, it involves shipping huge amounts of cleaning water too.

Von Stauffenberg describes his system as a voluntary extended producer responsibility programme. The business model relies on consumer packaged goods companies (CPG) paying a premium for its AI-driven tracing technology, which gives evidence of the origins of the recycled material. The business is now in talks with potential customers in the UK and overseas.

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Source: Getty Images

‘When I left Plastic Energy I knew I wanted to get rid of the need to incinerate plastic waste’

For von Stauffenberg, the next big project is to open a similar processing site in the UK this year.

He is facing some obstacles, like tax regulations. In the UK, these discourage businesses from investing in the use of chemically recycled plastic, he says. And, as he warns, that’s something the UK can ill afford if it’s serious about tackling the scourge of plastic pollution. Especially given the lack of infrastructure around flexible plastics.

“In England, you don’t even have kerbside recycling for that type of material,” von Stauffenberg points out. He cites this as a key reason behind the recent collapse of the Yes Recycling plant in Fife, which went into administration in April.

“Yes couldn’t make any money because there is no kerbside collection for flexible plastic, and the economics just don’t stack up,” he says. It takes a lot of energy to separate and wash flexible plastics before they can be chemically recycled.

To make things stack up, von Stauffenberg will be selling the pyrolysis oil created from the flexible plastic to petrochemical companies. “Once we’ve produced the oil, it gets sold to a petrochem company that produces plastic with recycled content to help drive up the supply of the material.”

Crucially, companies will pay a premium for the oil if there is evidence it comes from recycled content. Greenback provides that evidence through blockchain technology, which shows the oil has originated from post-consumer waste.

“We have the technology, the ways to create evidence. We have algorithms and AI that can create a 99% confidence model that your stuff comes from recycled content,” says von Stauffenberg.

For him, the business case for CPGs is simple. They know they are putting too much plastic onto the market and they are looking for a solution – particularly in the case of hard-to-recycle flexible plastics.

“What we are doing is selling them neutralisation on the one hand whereby we buy this plastic and recycle it with full traceability,” he points out.

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Von Stauffenberg will be selling the pyrolysis oil created from the flexible plastic to petrochemical companies

Controversial tactics

It isn’t quite as simple as it sounds, though. The use of chemical processes to break down plastic is controversial – and has resulted in companies such as Greenback locking horns with campaign groups.

“These organisations are kidding themselves if they think it’s more environmentally friendly for flexible plastics to be washed and separated than turned into oil and then put back into packaging,” claims von Stauffenberg in response. “If big companies want to have 30% recycled content and they want it across their categories, there is no way they can’t deal with chemical recycling.”

On a plus note, the UK government seems to be on his side. It is consulting over plans to allow a massive increase in the use of chemical technology under its Plastic Packaging Tax regulations.

“England has a great chance to jump ahead of Germany, which is heavily reliant on mechanical recycling”

It’s just one incidence of von Stauffenberg thinking along the same lines as UK government, which usually attracts his ire. He’s especially critical of former prime minister Boris Johnson’s “nonsense” plans to create a closed loop for plastic recycling.

“The Tories just don’t get it,” he says. “Boris Johnson famously said recycling [plastics] doesn’t work, but he didn’t figure out that England has a great chance to jump ahead of Germany, which is heavily reliant on mechanical recycling, and many other places, if they put more chemical recycling plants in.”

Greenback’s ambitions are on a global scale, though. It wants to build 300 plants over the next 20 years, with the aim of removing a million tonnes of plastic waste annually. The kicker is, it can only fund the first five plants. After that, it will need help from the industry.

It may be a big ask, but then it seems hard to say no to von Stauffenberg, who is driven by his desire to make a difference. As the son of diplomats, he spent his childhood travelling all over the world and briefly considered moving into politics. However, he decided he could do more in business.

“You often think of public service, but it’s just so difficult to get anything done as a politician unless you are willing to lie and cajole. I’d rather do it this way.”

And as he battles multiple obstacles, it is the vision of poverty-stricken children wandering the rubbish tips of central America that will spur him on.