From Lignite to Bioplastics

The phase-out of coal mining in Brandenburg has pushed the chemical and plastics industries to the fore. Around 600 companies are active in this sector in the eastern German state, and are pushing growth. A number are based in Schwarzheide.

March 2020

Brandenburg is a fairly rural state surrounding Germany’s capital city-state Berlin, which is rich in raw materials. For a long time, the city of Schwarzheide relied upon the lignite industry. Local businesses used it to produce polyurethane (i.e. plastic and synthetic resins). However, lignite is finite and coal-fired power plants are speeding up the damaging effects of global warming. It is therefore no surprise that there has been a change of thinking in Brandenburg.

The eastern federal state began the process of shutting down its first opencast coal mine in 2015. The second has been out of service since autumn 2019. In any event, the German Government plans to have shut down all coal-fired power plants by 2038 in order to reduce CO2 emissions and transition across to renewable energies.

Brandenburg’s transition plan

The people of Brandenburg have been working on their own transition plan to positively influence the imminent structural change. In Schwarzheide, local companies and research institutions have been collaborating to shift away from lignite-based plastics toward sustainable bioplastics. In this way, Brandenburg-based companies are addressing the issue of fossil fuels – themselves a finite resource – and their contribution to climate change, while meeting growing consumer demand for sustainable solutions.

The Schwarzheide business community has fallen back on its considerable expertise in specialized chemical products. This industry focus was the result of the last sweeping structural change in 1990. Shortly after the reunification of Germany, the chemical giant BASF took over a polyurethane production plant in Schwarzheide. Several medium-sized suppliers and cooperation companies followed suit. Since then, almost 600 companies from the plastics and chemical industries have settled in Brandenburg. Their total turnover amounted to EUR 3.4 billion in 2016. Local research institutions such as the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Polymer Research IAP also support innovation in this field.

The design of the original “Penny Farthing” high-wheel pedal bike from 1865 was the basis of an innovative experiment. What would a modern “e-velocipede” look like using the latest innovative materials and technology? © Rudolph Schelling Webermann

“Concept 1865” was cocreated by design studio Rudolph Schelling Webermann and the chemical innovation giant BASF. The 19th-century model was revamped as an e-velocipede using 24 different BASF plastics. The tires are made of Infinergy®, the world’s first expanded thermoplastic polyurethane. © BASF

Opportunities in sustainable solutions

Companies that want to participate in the growing sustainable business movement will find a suitable and welcoming environment in Schwarzheide. The Lusatia region has developed into a center for biopolymer innovation and offers promising investment opportunities for German and foreign companies. Not only is there a skilled local workforce but also building land at favorable prices, e.g. for the construction of large warehouses and production halls.

Take the Spanish environmental technology specialist Tradebe, for example. The group, which has more than 2,000 employees worldwide, made the move to the Schwarz­heide region in 2018. “The region, and ­Schwarz­heide in particular, is very industry-friendly,” says Volker Sernau, plant manager at Tradebe. “That is why we feel very well looked after here.” The Spaniards plan to invest around EUR 10 million in the site. Jörg Steinbach, Brandenburg’s Minister for Economic Affairs, Labor and Energy, welcomes Tradebe’s move: “This will better enable the Schwarzheide industrial park to meet its responsibilities for structural change in Lusatia.”

Facts & Figures

3.4bn

The total turnover of around 600 plastics and chemicals companies in Brandenburg in 2016. Many are meeting consumer demand for sustainable solutions. Source: Brandenburg

Strategic position within the European Union

Foreign companies will also benefit from Brandenburg’s proximity to other European Union (EU) countries. Schwarzheide is located in the southeast of Brandenburg and thus directly in the border triangle with Poland and the Czech Republic, while the capital Berlin is not far away.

The research into sustainable polymers that is taking place across Brandenburg fits well into the strategy of the EU. Brussels recently decreed that all plastic packaging should be recyclable by 2030. To achieve this goal, the EU Commission is providing funding to develop smarter, recyclable plastics and more efficient recycling processes, and to promote the elimination of hazardous substances and contaminants from recycled plastics. The federal state of Brandenburg and the German Federal Government have also launched specific funding programs in the field of plastics and chemicals: Twenty projects in Brandenburg are currently supported by the federal German Government.

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