In preparation for the world's leading plastics show in October – K 2019 – the German mechanical engineering association (VDMA) is running a series of interviews with officials within its plastics & rubber division as well as its key members.
In an interview, Alfred Stern, CEO of Austrian polyolefin producer Borealis AG, said the industry should prepare for the “real circular economy,” which he said will bring about improved resources efficiency.
While supporting measures to improve circularity, Stern said banning plastics would not contribute to a sustainable solution.
“On the contrary, it rather obstructs innovation. It is better to set concrete long-term goals,” he added.
With more than 230 members from Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France, VDMA will be centring its focus on circular economy and closed loop concepts during K 2019, to be held in Düsseldorf, Germany, 16-23 Oct.
Q: Why do plastics manufacturer endorse circular economy?
A: A new era is dawning for our sector. The sooner we prepare for the real circular economy the more positive the effect will be on our economic growth, the environment, our customers and the society as a whole. We also see the circular economy as a business opportunity; we expect the market for recycled polyolefin to grow. We at Borealis are convinced that plastics are too valuable to be dumped. Our vision is to do away with plastic waste and to recycle plastics as a raw material.
Q: Oil is considered a limited resource. On the one hand, the forecasts on peak oil differ, but on the other hand many predict its end. Against this background, is circular economy for plastics an example for proactive management?
A: The Stone Age was not followed by the metal age because our ancestors no longer had stones but because new and better solutions were found. It is similar with oil: With ever greater efforts we will be able to wring oil of the earth but there will be a time when this no longer pays off because, hopefully better, more straightforward and more sustainable solutions are available. Until then it is important to use oil as sensibly as possible, that means manufacturing plastics products that can be recycled at the end of their useful lives. Our major focus is on establishing a genuine circular economy.
Q: More and more voices are being raised demanding replacement of plastics by other materials. The latest example was the replacement of the material for drinking straws. Does that make sense?
A: My approach is rather pragmatic: plastics should be used where it is clearly better than other materials. And it is a fact that plastics are the more sustainable alternative in many aspects of daily life, for example in the automotive industry where in lightweight constructions plastics considerably contribute to a reduction in fuel consumption.
Or in the medical sector; there are hardly any useful alternatives for plastic blood and infusion bags. And in the field of food packaging, plastics help keep food fresh and hygienic for longer. Most alternative materials are much heavier and for this reason cause greater environmental damage during transportation, or they do not fulfil the same functions with regard to steam or oxygen barrier. Sustainability should be an essential criterion when choosing the right material.
Q: Plastics Europe states that the circular economy offers a chance to improve Europe’s competitiveness and resource efficiency. How could this work?
A: The circular economy offers the possibility to improve resources efficiency if raw and other materials are optimally used and stay in the cycle at the end of their useful life. The world population is growing constantly, and fortunately disposable incomes are also increasing. This means that the demand for materials in general and for plastics in particular will continue to rise. If the current linear economic model remains in place, it will lead to more waste, irrespective of the material utilised. The solution is switching to a circular economy which also allows for a reduction in the use of primary raw materials and thus for cutting CO2 emissions. In the majority of applications plastics are the most ecologically efficient material.
Q: What are the framework conditions EU politicians should set for the circular economy of plastics to really work economically?
A: Banning does not contribute to a sustainable solution; on the contrary, it rather obstructs innovation. It is better to set concrete long-term goals, but to leave open how these goals are achieved in order to ensure full effectiveness of competition and innovation. Moreover, we need uniform, constructive legislation at European and international level. National solo efforts do not get us anywhere.
Q: Where are the bottlenecks in the value-added chain of circular economies?
A: Cooperation of all players in the value-added chain is essential, but also a challenge. That’s why we have launched the EverMinds platform – the first of its kind in the sector. Together with our customers and partners we can initiate concrete measures to implement the principles of circular economy in a larger scale in the industry.
EverMinds is planned as a promoter and accelerator of ideas, inspiring new, high-quality and innovative polyolefin solutions. Circular economy has the potential to break up encrusted structures in the sector. We will take up this challenge with pleasure because we want to develop customer-specific solutions with outstanding performance characteristics.
Q: Product design plays a major role when it comes to recyclability of plastics. To what extent does that concern manufacturers of plastics? Where is this development heading?
A: The principles of circular economy drive us to develop new products with enhanced recycling capabilities. We already take this into account in the design phase and work closely together with our customers and partners to create products that can be recycled more easily, and to find new applications for these recyclates.
For this reason we invest a considerable amount of our innovation resources in research and development projects in the field of recycling. We examine the complete life cycle of a product: how it is produced, processed, used and finally recovered or recycled.