German machinery executive Ulrich Reifenhäuser, who joins the Plastics Hall of Fame this year, grew up with plastics at the dinner table.
His father, Hans, was the second generation running extrusion supplier Reifenhäuser GmbH & Co. KG Maschinenfabrik, and both the business and his father were a strong presence.
"Reifenhäuser was a family-owned company, and my father was the big and strong guy," he said. "Being his kid, he always brought the company into the family. I met with customers, and I met with employees who would sit at the dinner table."
So it's perhaps natural that Reifenhäuser, who has been managing director of the firm since 1992, would gravitate to the family firm. Both men are also in the Hall of Fame. Hans was inducted posthumously in 2014.
But Ulrich, the third generation in management in Reifenhäuser, has charted his own course.
He's probably the most prominent public face of the German plastics machinery industry, a key factor in his selection to the Hall.
Since 2004, Reifenhäuser has been chairman of the exhibitor advisory board of Germany's K show, the globe's most prominent plastics trade show.
Similarly, since 2009, he's had multiple terms as board chairman or vice chair of the plastics and rubber machinery group within the prominent German trade association VDMA.
"Ulrich has one huge quality that almost makes him unique in our industry: He's a real global spokesperson for plastics machinery," said Gunther Hoyt, a longtime machinery executive who nominated Reifenhäuser to the Hall of Fame.
Reifenhäuser has been chairman for the past six K shows. The fair happens every three years in Düsseldorf, and for every edition, the board of industry executives and show management elect one of their own to the voluntary position of head of the show.
K 2022 will be Reifenhäuser's seventh time. Before he took on the role, the job typically changed hands every one or two shows.
He said he sees his role as chairman of the fair, which claims attendance of more than 200,000 visitors from around the world over eight days, as creating a buying opportunity and a place to focus on common goals and challenges in the industry.
"Despite the day-to-day business when we fight as competitors and we fight for the single order, there is a clear understanding from my side, there is one strong wish and one strong target, to maintain the importance of plastics and support plastics," Reifenhäuser said.
Pursuing sustainable solutions
For the upcoming K 2022, Reifenhäuser said he feels there's extra pressure on industry to present viable technology to address the waste, recycling and environmental challenges facing the industry.
"At K 2022, the circular economy will be the subject," he said, shifting his tone for emphasis. "It's not the blah, blah, blah. We have to come up with some real technology solutions. It really has to be something that you can invest in."
His firm, for example, is working on new extrusion technology to recycle films that are not considered recyclable now, Reifenhäuser said.
"We have a challenge, and we have to organize," he said. "I think the plastics industry as a whole has to take it very, very seriously."
For most of his nearly four decades in the industry, he said, plastics firms were largely only asked to make their products perform better or be cheaper, and that drove growth.
"For 40 years, we just looked for the best solutions, and we were better, cheaper, and that was why plastics took this enormous path of success," Reifenhäuser said. "But nobody asked us for recycling solutions. Now suddenly, we have a problem."
The risks are substantial, he said. If the industry can't support viable solutions, then it risks giving up growth opportunities and society may move to different solutions in packaging where it relies on plastics now, he said.
"If we don't find a solution, plastics will lose chances for further growth," he said. "They will forbid it and say, 'Come on, forget about plastic and take paper again, or take glass or take cans or whatever.'"
He said the industry has a positive argument it can make to society, that plastics has a vital role to play in fighting climate change because it often has a lower carbon footprint than competing materials and it is an enabling technology for innovations like electric vehicles.
But it has to clear up the waste and environmental challenges to "bring plastic back on the stage" and be fully seen as a key part in solving climate change, he said.
"At the very end, it's the CO2 problem that is the much more serious problem," he said. "There is no solution to the CO2 problem without plastics."