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 machinery division as well as its key members.
In an interview, Michael Baumeister, managing director technology and logistics of plastic packaging machinery supplier Brückner Maschinenbau emphasised that the packaging industry and new technologies will play a crucial role in achieving sustainability and circular economy.
Plastic packaging, he said, should be used “where it is of direct benefit, relying on easily recyclable film mono-structures.”
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.
How can a company such as Brückner Maschinenbau contribute to circular economy?
MB: We are intensively looking for ways to improve recyclability of plastics products. For example, we address the question of how to produce packages by using easily recyclable mono-structures on the basis of polyolefin that have the properties achieved today with compounds of polyamide, polyester or metallised film which are all difficult to recycle. We practically apply a preliminary stage of circular economy that makes recycling possible for many products in the first place.
Material compounds are often used to make foodstuff more durable. Is this necessary to the degree presently applied?
MB: Packaging films are becoming ever thinner while they retain their protecting function, thus saving more and more raw materials. There are high-tech lightweight products which protect the valuable commodity of food for as long as possible. It is particularly worthy of protection as the production of foodstuffs also uses many scarce resources, such as great amounts of water and energy. Not least because of this, it is necessary to drastically reduce spoilage of food. Packaging and cooling are decisive factors. Compared with the much higher good food the CO2 footprint of packaging is negligible. When it comes to cars or planes consumers welcome lightweight construction parts because they reduce fuel consumption. When looking at packaging, consumers usually do not see this benefit. On the other hand, it will have to be verified if consumers accept packages which are not as smooth and transparent as they are now. At present, the appearance of packages has a strong influence on the buying decision.
The EU is forcing circular economy for plastics. The first bans and regulations are in place. How do you feel about this?
MB: It is important that these regulations apply in the same way to everyone operating in the European market. Otherwise, competition would be disrupted. With equal conditions for everyone, nobody would have a commercial disadvantage. As a positive result of regulation, I would expect essentially more intensive research on recycling possibilities, for example, on chemical recycling. As a consequence, there would be much more serious attempts to produce better recyclates. Because we do not want to down-cycle, that means to manufacture products of lower and lower quality – ranging from film via park benches to briquettes for fuel. The issue is about manufacturing high-quality products from recyclates, such as film which can come into contact with food again. This is extremely difficult to achieve with mechanical recycling due to hygiene requirements. Political specifications necessitate more complex processes for sustaining raw materials, a fact that constitutes the same obstacle for everyone.
Why should film be recycled into film at all? The recycling effort is immense. You need a lot of energy. Wouldn't it be better to make injection-moulded parts from film waste?
MB: From a short-term view, it is presently the cheapest option to turn a high-quality foil into something simple after usage, or to burn it instead of heating oil. In the long term, humankind must manage to become independent of crude oil because its resources are limited. At some point, we will have to be able to cover our energy demand completely from renewables. Then energy will no longer be the bottleneck and then it will be very sensible to use energy to obtain raw materials for further utilization. By applying energetically complex procedures such as chemical recycling, single-origin plastics could then be provided for high-grade applications. This way you could preserve valuable raw materials. This is the heart of the recycling economy concept: That no material will be lost.
The layers of plastics in the oceans mainly consist of packaging material. Do we have too much of it?
MB: Meanwhile more than half of the population already live in cities. They have to be fed. That's not possible without hygienic packaging. The main function of packaging is to protect higher-value commodities. But it is also obvious that there is some packaging that is not necessary. The plastics industry has realised that packaging waste is a major problem. The Ceflex consortium of companies is already working hard on this problem. Over 100 firms are currently participating, from raw material providers via machinery manufacturers to those who use films to make the packaging. We actively commit ourselves in three to seven working groups dealing with the design of packaging, the required machine technology and communication with the public.
Wouldn't a working circular economy be the end of organic plastics? We wouldn't really need them.
MB: PLA has been in the market for several years. We have developed adequate machine technology and our machines can process the material. But this material is based on corn starch and is still very expensive. On taking a closer look, the obvious advantages – PLA is not based on crude oil, it is made from a renewable resource and is compostable – are no advantage. The Grüner Punkt (green dot) initiative does not classify PLA as recyclable because there are no closed cycles. It cannot be disposed of in the refuse bin because you can't tell it from ordinary plastic film. They cannot be recycled together with other film materials. With regard to its properties, PLA has no comparable barrier or protection function; that's why it does not replace conventional film. We rather see that polyester of other polyethylene types can be made from renewable raw materials or are added to crude-oil based raw materials, the so-called drop-ins, i.e. not really crude-oil based, but no longer compostable. As additive, in the same way as E-10, bio-ethanol is added to petrol. In my view, the circular economy is not the end of bio-plastics, but they will not play an essential role in the foreseeable future.