In our world, plastics are indispensable. The downside is the littering. Carelessly discarded plastics products condense to form thick carpets, not just on rivers and seas, but also on land. A complete circular economy could prevent this evil and put the focus back on the benefits of plastics. In order for this to be a success, we all need to work together: processors, raw material manufacturers, mechanical engineers and recyclers, but also brand owners, end consumers and politicians.
VDMA will shine the spotlight on circular economy at the leading K 2019 trade fair in Düsseldorf in October and show how closed loops can work effectively. Towards this goal VDMA has organized a series of interviews with stakeholders and here below we present the same:
“Plastic waste is a problem for society as a whole.”
Interview with Ulrich Reifenhäuser, CSO of the Reifenhäuser Group
THE amount of plastic waste is growing steadily worldwide. In order to use resources sustainably, waste has to be given a value, it ought to be recycled and not disposed of, as is still the case in many countries around the world. Ulrich Reifenhäuser is convinced that there is a need for a comprehensive change of awareness in society. The end consumers need to be educated and informed. At the same time, an appropriate political framework has to be provided. Mechanical engineering supports resource-efficient production and recycling technologies, but brand owners also play a key role in promoting the acceptance of products made from recycled materials.
Why is a circular economy important for plastics?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: The topic of plastic waste has become increasingly important because the amount of litter is growing. This is due to an expanding global population and rising prosperity in many emerging economies. The mountains of waste are piling up, especially in Asia. We also have problems with this in Europe. In Scandinavia, the Netherlands, Germany, Austria and Switzerland the rate of recycling is truly excellent, but in Mediterranean countries, on the other hand, it's rather poor. It is clear, therefore, that the world of plastics needs to change. Discussions are currently underway, but this is not yet noticeable in the waste sector.
Why is that?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: This is a very complex and multi-layered problem. It's paradoxical. Plastics are an ideal material for many applications. They are light, easy to process, relatively inexpensive and available in sufficient quantities. Because of these benefits, their importance to competing materials is constantly increasing. This is positive. However, plastics are not usually dealt with correctly after use. Instead of being collected, they're thrown away. This is negative, and the real major issue at hand.
How can you change the behaviour of entire nations of consumers?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: By educating and appealing to the responsibility of consumers. Legislation is also a good way to do this. It's extremely important to attach value to plastic waste. This is something that needs to be approached from a political perspective. The best strategy here is to set recycling quotas for new plastics products. If quotas are in place, plastics processors will suddenly need recycled material. This will open up a new market. It may well be that high-quality recycled material costs twice as much as brand-new goods, but doubling the price won't make a difference when it comes to plastics products as their properties are far superior to those of other materials such as glass, metal or paper.
But end consumers are watching out for every last cent.
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: That's true, but that wouldn't be a problem anymore if laws were in place to stipulate that all plastics products need to comprise 30 percent recycled material. The preconditions would be the same for everyone then. It would take perhaps three years for us in Europe and also in Germany to suddenly have a completely different recycling industry.
So it can't be done without political guidelines?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: Politics is necessary because plastic waste is a problem for society as a whole. One group alone can't do much about it. It's about being aware that you can't just throw rubbish away.
What can mechanical engineering do to help?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: Mechanical engineering can support the process of sustainable plastics management. As a manufacturer of machines for processing plastics, we develop resource-efficient processes which allow a reduced use of plastics. One example is using thinner films that have the same protective properties as thicker ones. We also develop machines that produce products with no waste at all. All waste from production is immediately recycled. All these measures concern production. Regarding use, mechanical engineering provides all the technologies which enable plastic waste to be recycled.
Some plastic waste is difficult to recycle. What should you do?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: Recyclability must be taken into account from the very beginning, as early as the product design stage. Today, various materials are often incorporated into a product without any real necessity. This limits its recyclability. Some plastics are not compatible with each other when being recycled. It's not the case that you can always make a new, usable product from different plastics. The chemical industry is a key player in the further development of recyclability, but the requirements placed on a plastics product often have to be reduced as well. For example, barrier layers are currently integrated into the films used to package cheese, which extend its shelf life. The barrier layers are extremely difficult to separate and thus to recycle. If the barrier layers were to be reduced below five percent, the shelf life might also be reduced, but the films could be recycled much more easily. In any case, the question arises as to whether cheese needs to be kept for several weeks or even months.
Are plastics processors obliged to do this?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: The brand owners have to stipulate that certain plastics products may only be used for certain applications. This is already happening today, but it will take a while for it to be enforced. In any case, mechanical engineering is not the bottleneck. Also, legal requirements often still hinder the use of recycled material.
Scandinavian countries have taken a different approach by choosing to focus on incinerating plastic waste.
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: Incineration is a quite good secondary use. There have been no landfills in northern Europe for quite some time. The focus is very much on waste incineration there. In order to incinerate waste, and we're talking about all non-recyclable household waste, and generate energy from the incineration process at the same time, you need fuel. If you reach the firing temperatures with used plastics, you have two advantages. Firstly, plastics are used a second time, including and – above all – those which aren't recyclable. Secondly, the energy from the incineration process can be used further, for industrial processes, for example. Incineration is also a particularly good option if you want to tackle the waste problem quickly, for instance in emerging countries where plastic waste has not yet been recycled at all.
What is the best way to solve the problem of plastic waste?
Ulrich Reifenhäuser: There is no perfect solution – you have to explore various ways. We need modified plastics and we need modified products. But above all, people need to learn to take responsibility. They have to recognise that they shouldn't throw plastics away, but instead need to make sure to properly reuse them. Education is key: through politics, at school and at university. For example, more chairs for recycling management are required.
“Closed loops can solve the littering problem”
Interview with Thorsten Kühmann, Managing Director of VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery trade association
THORSTEN Kühmann is convinced that the plastics industry can offer solutions that help to eliminate the environmental problems caused by plastic waste. The guiding principle is circular economy. The global challenges for circular economy in the plastics industry are economic efficiency, political and regulatory constraints, quality standards and availability of recyclates and especially the establishment of functioning waste collection systems worldwide. VDMA will shine the spotlight on circular economy at the leading K 2019 trade fair in Düsseldorf in October and show how closed loops can work effectively.
Why is VDMA putting the spotlight on circular economy in its presentation at K 2019? Thorsten Kühmann: We are doing this because we have realised that we're facing an image problem when it comes to plastics. Nowadays, plastics usually only attract public attention when causing problems, polluting the environment or being suspected of endangering our health. Images and reports of how plastic waste is littering our oceans and the countryside are ever-present. These are serious problems indeed, and the industry needs to offer solutions. We want to use K 2019 as an opportunity to show what needs to be done to avoid these waste problems and the resulting damage. We will demonstrate that closed loops are a possible solution. What can visitors see at K 2019? Thorsten Kühmann: We're pursuing two goals. At our exhibition pavilion, we will firstly present the entire cycle of circular economy in the plastics industry, from production via the use phase of plastics products to collecting, sorting, recycling and the subsequent return to production. Our second goal is to make our visitors experience circular economy. To achieve this, we will be working with partners from the entire plastics value chain at the trade fair, including raw material suppliers, processors and recyclers, and will demonstrate how a closed loop works. At K 2019, it should become clear that the plastics industry is taking care of the waste problem and that it already has proposals for effective solutions. What are the biggest challenges in the practical implementation of circular economy? Thorsten Kühmann: There are several challenges. It's extremely important to bear in mind that cycles can only function well if they are profitable. Many plastics processors currently use virgin material rather than recycled material, simply because it's cheaper. At the end of the day, the consumer usually goes for the cheaper product in the supermarket. Those who use recycled materials would lose out because their products would be more expensive and thus left on the shelves. In order to increase the use of recycled materials, fixed quotas are needed so that everyone has the same starting conditions. The EU Plastics Directive also provides for quotas like this. Companies therefore need a new business model. The other challenge is to create reliable quality standards for recycled materials. These don't currently exist which means that those who use recyclates never really know exactly what quality they are getting. This makes the processes less secure: If material quality fluctuates, production cannot be controlled as reliably as with standardised new materials. Recycled materials would be much easier to accept if they were standardised. And finally, there is a problem with quantity. Those who are currently prepared to use recyclates, do not know whether they will actually be able to obtain the quantities they require over a longer period of a few years. Is everything that is needed for the circular economy feasible from a technological perspective? Thorsten Kühmann: There are still matters that need to be clarified. But there are already technological solutions for standard processes such as sorting, shredding and recycling. There will certainly be improvements in that regard. Technology is not the main problem in the plastics recycling industry. What role does product design play? Thorsten Kühmann: Product design must be approached in a different way in the circular economy. Until now, products have followed a design, but it has been all about functionality and ultimately appearance. There has been no obligation or consistent practice for a sound eco-design. In fact, all products, including plastics products, should be checked in terms of their recyclability. At the moment, this is not happening. It's neither a requirement, nor common practice. Of course, it would help if products were designed in a recyclable way in the first place. Europe is only responsible for a mere fraction of the plastic waste in our oceans. Will consistently focusing on a circular economy here even make any kind of difference? Thorsten Kühmann: Awareness of the waste problem in the world's oceans is particularly high in Europe. As a result, the image of plastics is suffering, especially in Germany. It is true that the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research has discovered that 90 percent of annual marine pollution is caused by plastics from ten rivers in Asia and Africa, but the problem affects us all. Just think of microplastics in fish. That's why people here are concerned. A circular economy in Europe means setting a good example. We can show other countries how it works and that it does indeed work. Usually, the main problem is a lack of or inadequate waste management. Without waste management, however, there can be no circular economy. We would like our systems to be adapted throughout the world. Not necessarily to match each other one-for-one, but to be used as guidance. This is why we are showcasing them at K 2019 and why it is good to drive them forward in Europe. The task is extremely complex. It has taken us years to get to where we are now, but other regions don't have so much time. It really is time to act now by learning from those who are already doing it.