The environmental message at Chinaplas 2019 was pretty simple: The industry needs to find a way to address public worries around plastic waste or it risks future growth if consumers view plastics as a problem.
"If we're not able to address it, I think there is a risk," said Bambang Candra, the Singapore-based commercial vice president for Asia-Pacific in Dow Inc.'s packaging and specialty plastics unit, during a news conference that delved heavily into environmental issues.
It was a recurring theme at media events and interviews at Chinaplas, which normally focuses on opportunities for plastics growth from the expanding middle class in China and the rest of Asia.
Those growth opportunities were still being touted, of course, but they were tempered by concerns that if the waste worries are not addressed, long-term growth may suffer.
Chinaplas, held 21-24 May in Guangzhou, is one of the world's two-largest plastics fairs.
Befitting the audience of industry professionals, machinery companies talked about their stepped-up efforts to develop new technology to process lower grades of recycled plastics and suggested how Industry 4.0 data technologies could help.
Materials makers, for their part, outlined research efforts to use more recycled plastics and talked about industry-funded projects to build waste collection infrastructure in developing economies in Asia.
Matthias Sieverding, president of extrusion technology for Germany's KraussMaffei Berstorff GmbH, told a news conference that environmental concerns will be the top challenge for industry in the next decade.
He noted with China's National Sword banning imports of waste plastic — and public pressure worldwide — brand owners are telling the plastics industry to "come up with wholesale solutions … to show that we are able to tackle the problem and move forward."
"We believe there's a lot of potential that the best 50 years of the plastics industry are still ahead of us, there are many more uses for our product, but we have to make sure the public is not losing faith that we can handle the challenges," Sieverding said. "A lot of development we do in our tech center is revolving around the issue of recycling."
4.0 and recycling
German blow moulding machine maker Kautex Maschinenbau GmbH also noted more public pressure.
A top Kautex executive agreed that a key for machinery makers will be R&D to develop equipment to better process lower-quality recycled materials and expand the range of plastics that can be effectively recycled.
Managing Partner Andreas Lichtenauer believes the machinery sector stepped up its focus in the last year. He noted that German consumer product companies have increased their advertisements in the past year around both ocean plastics and using more recycled plastics.
Kautex kicked off its project in summer 2018, and Lichtenauer said his company plans to unveil detailed technology developments at K 2019, later this year in Germany.
One particular area of interest, he said, will be using Industry 4.0 data analysis to better handle the variances in properties with recycled material, particularly with lower-grade recycled plastics.
"It's very important in the design stage to consider how to recycle this product at the end of its lifetime." Christoph Steger, Engel Holding GmbH
"I see with digitalization, and with the possibilities you have today with big data analysis, [for] using a material that is not as stable," Lichtenauer said. "Maybe we can combine technology, post-consumer resin with some other technologies, that is what we want to show on the K show."
Austrian injection moulding machine maker Engel Holding GmbH struck a similar theme.
Christoph Steger, chief sales officer, said Engel sees opportunities using its Industry 4.0 technology to "support the usage of such recycled material with intelligent systems that compensate for the higher variation in recycled materials compared to virgin."
"We are really involved with our customers in the early stages when it comes to product development, to bring our know-how regarding recycling and the usage of recycled materials," he said. "It's very important in the design stage to consider how to recycle this product at the end of its lifetime."
He noted at a news conference that Engel in March became the first plastics injection machinery maker to join the Ellen MacArthur Foundation's New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, which includes more than 350 companies, governments and organizations that have pledged to substantially cut plastic waste.
Steger said Engel's participation within the foundation, which represents about 20% of the global plastic packaging market, has been very fruitful.
"The discussions within the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, they are great," he said. "It's not about the criticism toward or against plastic. It's much more positive, optimistic and proactive.
"We are discussing what can everyone contribute in order to enable a circular economy, in order to enable a sustainable and thoughtful usage of plastic," he said. "Within the Ellen MacArthur Foundation no one doubts the need for plastics, but what we are discussing is are there areas where we use it in the right way, in the proper way."