New regulations force action

The Packaging Act and the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Package have been occupying companies for some time now. The closer the deadline approaches, the more nervous the economy becomes.

Tom Ohlendorf notices almost daily in talks with representatives of industry just how preoccupied the companies are with the Packaging Act and the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Package. “I see an increasing willingness to engage in dialogue on topics such as recycling and eco-design,” says the Packaging Project Manager at WWF Germany in Hamburg. “Although many companies have already shown interest in new packaging concepts in the past for reasons of cost and efficiency, we are now at a point where the topic is being discussed very intensively and along the value chain”. His organisation does not see itself as an opponent of the industry, but as a critical sparring partner with whom people can exchange ideas in order to work together on constructive solutions. “The WWF’s top priority is to avoid packagings. If this is not possible, it is a matter of using them sensibly,” says Ohlendorf.

Recycling-friendly packaging design as the goal

He considers it particularly important to have an honest discussion about what recycling really means. From his point of view, it is not only the thermal recycling of plastic packaging that is prohibited, for example incineration in a combined heat and power plant. After all, the raw material would then be completely lost. “The aim must be not only to meet the recycling quotas set by the new Packaging Act in quantitative terms, but also to work towards increasing the quality of the recycled materials,” says the WWF man.

""The WWF's top priority is to avoid packagings. If this is not possible, it is a matter of using them sensibly". 
Tom Ohlendorf, Project Manager Packaging at WWF Germany

The “Design for Recycling”, i.e. recycling-friendly design of the packaging, is one of the decisive factors here. Topics such as material combinations, printing, grade purity or disassembling capacity should be included from the outset. “In addition, it is often not the basic materials that make high-quality recycling difficult, but the coatings or adhesives used,” says Ohlendorf. “These points should also be taken into account as early as the packaging development phase in order to ensure effective and high-quality recycling of the materials”.

Focus on renewable raw materials

A further aspect is the use of renewable raw materials: “Regardless of whether conventional plastics or bioplastics are used, we have to take a holistic view of each material from its origin, through its use and up to the post-use phase – giving consideration to the overall balance. He believes it makes sense for industry to agree on the use of certain standard polymers in as pure a form as possible instead of wildly mixed composite materials in order to facilitate sorting, separation and material recycling for the dual systems.

In the meantime, initiatives by individual companies or cooperation arrangements will have to provide examples of what is possible with plastics in terms of recycling management. Werner & Mertz GmbH in Mainz, for example, which sells Frosch cleaning agents among other products, has been using PET packaging since 2010, 80 percent of which consists of the recycled material from returnable bottles. Together with various partners, such as the sorting technology specialist Unisensor and the packaging manufacturer Alpla, a laser-based system has now been developed along the value chain that also detects PET in general plastic waste and feeds it into a high-quality recycling system. Since then, up to 40 percent of Frosch’s PET packaging has consisted of recycled material from the secondary raw materials of the Yellow Bag. This not only conserves resources, but also reduces energy consumption in production by up to two thirds. “We see this form of up-cycling as a real case of eco-efficiency,” said Reinhard Schneider, Managing Partner of Werner & Mertz, on the occasion of the presentation of the Efficient Consumer Response Award for this innovation. “The challenge is to build an efficient process chain.”

"Often good ideas still fail because the procurement officer only asks critically about the additional costs and does not recognize the enormous potential of the new, perhaps indeed somewhat more expensive packaging."
Christian Clemm, Workshop leader in the Environmental and Reliability Engineering Department of the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration

Process optimization as a central challenge

Tips about this are available for instance from associations, from universities, colleges and research institutes. Their suggestions can help others to see packaging from a different point of view and thus find new solutions. For example the “Ecodesign Learning Factory” of the Environmental and Reliability Engineering Department of the Fraunhofer Institute for Reliability and Microintegration in Berlin serves this purpose. Workshop leader Christian Clemm recommends that businesses should not entrust examination of this topic solely to packaging experts, but also to decision-makers from other departments, as if this does not happen friction losses are likely when implementing new concepts. “Often good ideas still fail because the procurement officer only asks critically about the additional costs and does not recognize the enormous potential of the new, perhaps indeed somewhat more expensive packaging. Clemm’s advice is to eliminate antiquated ways of thinking through open debates in the company, for example by cultivating a broad economic approach: “One must not simply compare recycling and throw-away costs, but instead generally think in a larger dimension in terms of product life cycles and sustainability. This can be both part of an extended business model and a defining element for the corporate image”.

Clemm is certain that the Packaging Act will unfold its power here in the medium term. Many companies are already skilfully communicating their responsible actions when it comes to packaging. The Fraunhofer expert recently noted this in a notebook comparison. Some manufacturers shipped the devices with an overabundance of outer packaging, including polystyrene, colourful foil and lavish printing, for which transport reasons could hardly be responsible. And then came a cardboard box made of recycled mono-material, black and white and labelled with soy ink. At one point the consignor briefly explained the selection of easily separable and recyclable materials and the eco-ink and thus left a lasting positive impression.

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