In the lead-up to K 2022, the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, VDMA has conducted a series of interviews with leading businesspersons in the industry, under the title Way2K. Here, Roland Straßburger, President of Industrievereinigung Kunststoffverpackungen (IK) and Chairman of the Management Board at Schütz GmbH & Co. KGaA talks about how the recycled content in plastic packaging could be doubled
Mr. Straßburger, in its coalition agreement, the German government has devoted a separate chapter to the circular economy. Which statements do you find particularly helpful?
The coalition agreement is a strong commitment to a society that manufactures in a CO2-neutral manner and relies on climate-friendly products. Plastics and plastic products are enormously important for both these goals, as they are often lighter and can be processed using less energy than other materials. The task now is to change the nature of our production in a sustainable way. Circular economy has become the guiding principle of our industry. We want to help reduce primary raw material consumption and promote closed material cycles. To achieve these goals, the coalition agreement provides for the development of a national circular economy strategy – a project that for Germany as an industrial location is both ambitious and ground-breaking. Whereas in the past, small-scale decisions were often made, we expect this strategy to take a holistic view of resource consumption as well as the climate impact of production and consumption.
Are there also announcements in the agreement that you find rather alarming or imprecise?
In fact, we have identified a contradiction that needs to be resolved urgently. The German government actually intends to financially reward and thus promote resource-efficient and recycling-friendly packaging designs and the use of recycled materials. This is contradicted by the announcement in the chapter on subsidies stating that the so-called EU plastic levy will be passed on to manufacturers and distributors. It fuels the trend toward non-recyclable paper-plastic packaging to the disadvantage of highly recyclable plastic packaging; this cannot possibly be what the German government has in mind.
How important is cooperation between companies in the plastics value chain?
Circular economy cannot be created in individual parts. A better understanding of the processes upstream and downstream of one's own factory gates and thinking products through to the end of their lifespans is essential when generating material flows. This is true for manufacturing companies and, of course, for the associations that represent them. The plastics industry associations want to help shape the transformation, support and encourage their members and create a constructive platform. In our "We are plastics" initiative, producers, machine builders and processors are committing themselves to this claim and backing it up with financial and personnel investments.
When it comes to plastic waste, packaging is the main target of criticism. How can this be faced?
Some criticism is justified. Plastics in the environment are a problem that urgently needs to be solved worldwide. A responsible use of resources is therefore more important than ever. This also concerns the question of whether the special properties of plastics are needed for a particular application or whether their use can be dispensed with. The question of alternatives to fossil oil in plastics production must also be addressed. However, many accusations are based on ignorance or opinionated sentiments. Plastic is easily labelled as an environmental offender. Its contribution to a sustainable, climate-friendly lifestyle is completely overlooked. Simply omitting plastics or replacing them with other materials sounds temptingly simple but would have a massive negative impact on the climate. One of our core tasks is to explain to the public how plastics contribute towards climate protection. We do this, for example, in our Plastics Packaging Newsroom. With such a product that is considered in such a critical light, credibility, transparency and progress in recycling are important elements for a long-term appreciative perception of plastic packaging.
How great is the potential for recycled material in plastic packaging?
The IK (the German Association for Plastics Packaging and Films) recently had the potential for the use of recyclates in plastic packaging determined. The results are encouraging. The use of recycled plastic in packaging could be increased from the current 475 to around 960 thousand tons per year, which corresponds to around 22 percent of the production volume. The declared goal of the industry is the use of one million tons of recycled plastic by 2025. Plastic packaging manufacturers in Germany are focusing on innovations and investments throughout the value chain to use more recyclate in their products. and the race to catch up has already begun: between 2017 and 2019, demand for recyclates increased by more than 18 percent, while at the same time the consumption of virgin plastics declined. This decoupling shows the enormous interest of the packaging industry in the use of recyclates.
How do you approach the issue of circular economy in the company you manage, the Schütz Group?
For our products in the field of industrial packaging, take-back and environmentally friendly recycling have been part of our business model from the very beginning. Especially for containers, the IBCs, with their modular design, the cycle is completely closed. For decades, Schütz has been using the recyclates obtained in the process in technical plastic parts, including pallets. More recently, the range of multi-layer plastic containers with a recyclate content of 30 percent has been added. We call this the green layer. This trend looks set to continue.