In recent years, the European chemical industry has been striving towards the double twin transition to a climate neutral, circular, and digital economy at the same time as transitioning to safe and sustainable chemicals. Silicones have been the unsung heroes on this journey, making the impossible possible, enabling new e-mobility solutions, powering our smartphones, and unlocking renewable energy for our homes. In particular, the chemistry of silicones gives them unique properties which support the circularity of many products, giving them a longer life and making them easier to reuse.  

When it comes to the end of silicones’ life, however, progress can still be made to help realise their full circularity potential. Investing in additional recycling techniques for silicones would help close the loop, in line with the idea of a circular economy founded on the three Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.  

Recycling silicones would also reduce their carbon footprint and support the EU’s Strategic Autonomy in terms of access to critical raw materials. If the EU does not want to be left behind its global counterparts (like the US or China) in the circular economy journey, it needs to recognise and invest in innovative technologies that allow for the recycling of silicones.  

How depolymerisation can give silicones a second life 

Chemical recycling technologies provide a promising solution. Where mechanical recycling reaches its limits, chemical recycling technologies provide an array of complementary options. Among these options, depolymerisation fits the bill. To put it simply, depolymerisation breaks products down into their basic building blocks (monomers), which are then fed back into the normal production processes of silicone polymers. It’s almost like rewinding the tape on the life of a silicone product, resulting in recycled silicones with the same quality as those made from virgin material. 

Deploying this process would address people’s common (mis)understanding that recycled products trade environmental benefits for reduced quality. Recycled silicones obtained by depolymerisation would maintain the highest standards, remaining suitable for critical applications where quality cannot be traded off, such as in delicate medical devices like pacemakers. Depolymerisation of silicones could also reduce industrial waste, enabling waste products to be re-inserted into the production process as a raw material.  

Depolymerisation brings silicone products back to their monomer state to be used as a resource. Therefore, recent discussions on banning specific silicone monomers would render the circular economy of silicones, and the many products containing them, an impossibility. For the future of strategic European industries, it is crucial to have a regulatory environment that enables a circular economy, not outlaws it. 

Environmental impact: seeing the full picture 

The energy intensity of chemical recycling technologies is one of the biggest criticisms laid out against them. In the case of silicones, however, the benefits of depolymerisation outweigh the downsides and show a positive balance in terms of climate impacts.  

Most of the carbon footprint of silicones is related to the mining and refining of silicon metal, the raw material used to produce silicone polymers. Using chemically recycled silicones, which need significantly less virgin raw materials, can significantly reduce the CO2 emissions and resource intensity of silicone production.  

The depolymerisation of silicones would also support the achievement of the EU’s goals under the Critical Raw Materials Act, reducing dependency on imports of silicon metal (which was identified as both a strategic and critical raw material by the European Commission) and therefore supporting the EU’s Strategic Autonomy from its global competitors.  

An opportunity not to be missed 

Silicones already support the circularity of many products across several sectors, but there is still work to be done to make silicones circular throughout their whole lifecycle. Silicones Europe fully endorses the objectives of the EU Circular Economy Action Plan. Already, every day our members support consumers and several industries in playing their role, providing products that can enable the achievement of these goals. With adequate support from the EU institutions, channeling investment into research programmes and recognising powerful recycling technologies like depolymerisation, we believe we can do more. By turning silicones into a real end-of-life resource, we can close the loop and help to make the European economy circular for real.