„Plastics Save the Future“

New technological developments in the plastics industry are enabling more sustainable packaging, according to a FACHPACK forum held at TECHBOX on Tuesday. Experts from several industries presented case studies.

When is packaging recyclable – and when is it not? Answers are provided by the minimum standard for measuring the recyclability of packaging (Section 21, Paragraph 3, German Verpackungsgesetz), which is updated annually. Three years ago, PET trays were still considered non-recyclable. In the meantime, however, the legislator has been convinced of the technical possibilities of recycling. The so-called itemized bill makes it possible, explained Till Isensee, packaging engineer and owner of the Tilisco consultancy at the TECHBOX forum on the first day of FACHPACK. „That’s our hope, that the technical possibilities will be shown,“ Isensee said. „Because the minimum standard does not describe the technical recyclability, but the current commercial recyclability.“

Plastic-free release agents

Under the title „Sustainability and no end: Development4Recycling 2.0“ and moderated by Sonja Bähr, the Tilisco agency presented „Best Cases“. For example, Sina Schulz, Head of Procurement at Bell Germany, presented sustainable packaging concepts for meat products. The company received a WorldStar Award from the World Packaging Organization for this in 2022. Fifteen years ago, the Bell Group launched the first foldable packaging for ham, and later became one of the first companies to introduce recyclable packaging, Schulz said. The current lighthouse project is a release agent made from bio-oil. Thanks to the innovative release agent it is possible to dispense with the commercially available separating film (interleaver) between the individual slices of ham, thus reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging.

School milk project in Austria

Under the slogan „Plastic saves the future“, the Viscotec company of the Austrian Starlinger Group is promoting its packaging for dairy products. In a joint project with Austrian school milk producers and the Upper Austrian companies PET-MAN and Greiner Packaging, Starlinger viscotec has produced sustainable cups made of 100 percent recycled PET (rPET) for filling with school milk for the province of Oberösterreich (Upper Austria), for which it also received a WorldStar Award 2022.  The special feature is that the cups are unprinted, and if the cup is detached and returned to the school collection point after the milk drinks have been consumed, new milk cups can be produced from them. Used school milk cups are shredded, washed, recycled, and the material is used to make new rPET cups.

Revolution with the help of artificial intelligence

Nathanael Laier, co-founder of the Würzburg-based start-up WeSort.AI, which has developed a system for sorting waste, took a look into the future. „We are revolutionizing recycling through artificial intelligence,“ promises the start-up, which has received a Founder’s Prize from the German Federal Ministry of Science. Based on artificial intelligence (AI), a machine-learning algorithm in a separation chamber equipped with air-pressure nozzles controls the nozzles to blow off the waste into the correct fabric channel. The control cameras in the stock channels send a feedback signal for self-learning optimization of the algorithm to determine whether the waste has landed in the correct channel.

Laier cited the example of sorting waste from a WC duck. He said a common sorting system incorrectly identifies the packaging as a PET bottle, but it is actually HDPE packaging. AI can learn to recognize new objects, analyze packaging contents and contaminants, he said. As a next step, the startup wants to develop an AI sorting machine to separate waste more accurately, he said. In the end, he said, this will be a cheaper technology – without manual re-sorting.

By Anna Ntemiris