Environmental issues were on the agenda at the annual meeting of polymer producer organisation PlasticsEurope Deutschland, in this feature for Plastics News Europe David Vink explores these issues.
Germany is among the leading member states in the European Union when it comes to recycling. But awareness of plastics waste issues has been increasing in the country, as elsewhere in the EU, due to initiatives on the Circular Economy, reducing shopping bag usage and marine waste.
At the annual meeting of PlasticsEurope Deutschland in May, the association's president Dr Josef Ertl referred to a recent survey in Germany, in which, although 71% of respondents view plastics and their advantages positively, the image of plastics was shown to be suffering, since they also have concerns on marine waste associated with plastics.
Rüdiger Baunemann, managing director PlasticsEurope Deutschland, which represents 200 German plastics producers, said the plastic carrier bag discussion is a “proxy war” and “an emotional discussion that really has nothing to do with reality”. He continued: “I believe what is really needed is that we must again make the value of plastic packaging clearer.”
Baunemann talked about intensive discussions in Germany and at the European level on avoiding food waste, stressing the role of plastics packaging in preventing unnecessarily spoiling and throwing away food.
He pointed out that the plastics packaging area is very stable and has not been particularly affected by external factors, with the general discussions on plastics not having so far generally spilled over to plastics packaging. But Baunemann warned: “The emotions involved do represent a certain danger. But we hope to bring discussion into the right direction with facts and corresponding persuasive efforts.”
In the political discussion initiated by the German government on plastic bag restrictions, as well as the recognition of the marine litter problem, he said there should be no one-sided or preliminary accusations of guilty parties in these environmental areas, as the solution is to ensure setting up proper waste management systems. And it is here that “we in Germany have applied a relatively clear course”, he said.
The association's market and business manager, Claus-Jürgen Simon, put the discussion in perspective by pointing out that plastic carrier bags account for only 1% of plastics packaging consumption in Germany.
Nevertheless, he pointed to the potential to cut packaging consumption in other EU countries. Germany sets a good example with 67 kg of packaging consumption per head of population in 2012, compared with 198 kg/head in the EU overall. German consumers tend to re-use carrier bags and are less inclined to throw them away, Simon observed.
Baunemann added that the most important message – and one that has always been important in Germany – concerns improvement of materials in order to increase efficiency in use of resources. “It is difficult to say there can be an end to this process, but there is anyway no alternative other than to continue using plastics for packaging applications,” he said.
In his review of markets for plastics, Ertl spoke positively of the role played by plastic packaging as the largest sector for material producers, accounting for 35% of plastics use in Germany. He noted the continuing development of plastics packaging for improved food protection, yet with increasingly efficient use of resources. Optimised materials and processes have cut packaging weight, while retailers and consumers have placed increased demands on packaging by seeking more convenience and “food to go” solutions.
Ertl illustrated the protective role of plastics in protection of medicines with the decision of the village of Hüffelhardt in Germany to introduce sale of medicines to its 2,000 inhabitants via automatic dispensing machines, following the closure of the last pharmacy in the village.
Looking at other markets for plastics, Ertl said the building industry continues on a growth path and accounts for a 24% share of plastics use in Germany. In addition to the role of plastics in insulation – “the fastest and easiest way to cut greenhouse emissions” – Ertl gave examples of where plastics enable architects to design functional, sustainable and aesthetically pleasing buildings.
These applications include the transparent exterior claddings of the football stadium in Lille, France. Another example is the renovated railway station in Anaheim, California, in the US, with 160 foil cushions which have been printed on their upper sides to reduce direct solar radiation, and which change colour according to daylight and season. The El Batel conference centre in Cartagena, Spain, with its luminescent plastic window façade, provides light and colour to its auditorium and special interior and exterior colour effects, Ertl pointed out.
In the automotive sector, Ertl referred to the continuing trend to hybrid material use in vehicle bodies and structures, but also to the growing importance of 3D printing for the industry, with the technique used not only for prototyping, but also for small series production and niche applications.
Organic electronics is an area becoming increasingly interesting for plastics, Ertl maintained. Application examples include: intelligent bandages, flat screens, thin flexible displays and solar cells, organic batteries, smart watches, fitness trackers and electroactive jogging shoes producing electricity to power wearable devices. He did not rule out future potential for consumers to 3D print their own electric equipment.