Where should we start when it comes to optimizing recycling management? Too often, consumers, retailers, consumer goods manufacturers, as well as packaging and recycling companies still point a finger at one of the others. Everyone is feeling the increasing political and social pressure. And everyone knows: Something has to happen – in my case too!
by Wolfgang Borgfeld
From a purely legal point of view, the requirements are simple: The purpose of the Closed Substance Cycle Waste Management Act, which was last amended in July 2017, is “to promote closed-loop recycling in order to conserve natural resources”. And the direction is also clearly defined: Paragraph 7 states that “the recycling of waste takes precedence over its disposal”. As early as 2015, the European Commission had presented an action plan with 54 measures which, among other things, were intended to help accelerate Europe’s transition to a closed-loop economy. The target here: “By 2030, all plastic packaging must be designed to be recyclable throughout Europe.” Since this alone was evidently not yet enough, the Packaging Act, which includes new recycling quotas, entered into force on 1 January 2019. But paper will bear whatever is written on it without complaint, especially when it comes to plastics. What works quite well with paper, cardboard, glass, aluminum and sheet metal does not work well with plastics: Of the 5.2 million metric tons of plastic waste from end consumers in Germany in 2017, only 810,000 metric tons went into plastics processing as recycled plastic. According to the Green parliamentary group in the Bundestag (the German Parliament), this corresponds to a meagre 5.6 percent.
“The amount of recycled materials used is embarrassingly low compared with new plastics,” says Michael Wiener, CEO of the waste collection organization Duales System Deutschland, “the industry urgently needs upscaling, in other words production on a large industrial scale, because high-quality recycled materials are currently more expensive than virgin materials.
Consumer goods industry is challenged, but not solely responsible
But where to start? Maybe with the manufacturers? This is exactly where many politicians and consumers like to place the responsibility. “We have to create a recycling economy for plastics in which plastic is recycled,” writes Thomas Müller-Kirschbaum, co-chair of Henkel’s Sustainability Council, in a spotlight on www.henkel.de. The company uses as much recycled material as possible in its packaging and ensures that it can then be recycled again. Where recycled material is processed, 99 percent of it consists of post-consumer recyclate, in other words plastic waste from the end consumer household. Müller-Kirschbaum answers the much-discussed question of the importance of post-industrial recycled (PIR) plastic waste, which is generated during production and then recycled as follows. “The proportion of PIR in Henkel recyclates is less than one percent. Nevertheless, every plastic that is recycled and does not end up in the environment or be incinerated makes a contribution”.
Many other manufacturers are also taking up the challenge. In addition to Henkel, Reckitt Benckiser, Procter & Gamble, Heitmann, as well as Hipp und Beiersdorf are active partners in the Recycling Forum of the drugstore chain dm. Like many other suppliers, Beiersdorf wants to focus 100 percent on recyclable, compostable or reusable packaging by 2025. At the same time, Beiersdorf plans to increase the proportion of recycled plastic in its packaging in Europe to 25 percent. Currently, 25 percent recycled PET (rPET) is already being integrated into the production of bottles during the production of Nivea facial cleansing oils.
The firm Werner & Mertz GmbH is already a major step ahead. The owner of the Frosch and Erdal brands has been working already since 2012 on optimizing the material cycle as part of the Recyclate Initiative founded by the managing partner Reinhard Schneider. This is not always easy, says Timothy Glaz, Head of Corporate Affairs (Photo: Werner & Mertz GmbH). On the one hand, the closed cycle of plastics is the most difficult to produce, not least because the complexity of the materials used makes recycling so difficult. On the other hand, firms are reluctant to leave existing process paths and many companies in the plastics industry do not cooperate when it comes to recycled materials.
Glaz often misses the necessary commitment even today, because the know-how on how to prepare high-quality material is after all available. Ergo: “The plastics manufacturing industry could make a more significant contribution to eliminating problematic substances”. Glaz associates this with concrete demands made of manufacturers: “We need more information about the recyclability of packaging materials. Which additives cause problems in the recycling of packaging? If you know that, then you can develop alternatives or just have to leave the material out.” There are experts who believe that a closed material cycle is technically feasible. In their opinion, food packaging is already highly recyclable today. Materials such as pure polypropylene (PP) can already be processed and cleaned unmixed. However, as there are no certified recycling processes for food packaging yet, the regulatory requirements must also be observed. Werner & Mertz had an easier time of it. Their PET bottles for Frosch detergents were to be made entirely of old plastic, so-called post-consumer recycling. Although the company quickly realized that the material had become distinctly too dark for its purposes, it soon achieved its goal by changing its approach. “Today we produce using 20 percent from the yellow sack and 80 percent from returned PET deposit bottles,” says Glaz. However, the goal remains to produce PET 100 percent from the collection in the yellow bags: “Perhaps we have to accept that the material will become a little darker in the process, that still remains unanswered.
The bottle supplier for Werner & Mertz is Alpla Werke Alwin Lehner in Hard, Austria. The group, which operates nearly 180 plants worldwide, signed the Global Commitment of the New Plastics Economy in 2018, thereby committing itself, among other things, to making all packaging solutions 100 percent recyclable by 2025 and to increasing the proportion of processed post-consumer recycling materials to 25 percent of the total material input. According to the company, EUR 50 million are available for the expansion of recycling activities.
Design as the key
Design is one of the keys to establishing the circular economy. Too many packages that were once optimized to protect food ideally are made of composite materials that are nearly impossible or difficult to recycle. To change this, the design of the packaging must become recycling-friendly.
The dm Recycling Forum has also committed itself to this goal: Already during the development of new packaging, care should be taken to ensure that the packaging is recyclable and that recyclates are increasingly used. A good year ago, dm Managing Director Sebastian Bayer – at the time referring to the Packaging Act – even thought it possible that the proportion of recyclate and recyclable design could in future become a prerequisite for product listing in the trade.
Glaz considers a minimum proportion of recyclates in packaging to be counterproductive: “They lead to a downward orientation, not an upward one. “We want to set a market standard in motion. The goal is 100 percent recyclate utilization,” emphasizes Glaz. This is also viewed in the same way by dm: The goal must always be to achieve the highest possible recycling rate in packaging, says Bayer.
Consumers need to be better informed through targeted campaigns
But do consumers appreciate these efforts? Beiersdorf’s answer leaves room for interpretation: “For our customers, the primary focus is on product performance and compatibility, and sustainable packaging is also a welcome addition. The observations at dm are similar: “The current climate debate has also given recycling and waste reduction a strong boost. We notice that our customers are showing increased interest in this” says Bayer, remaining rather cautious. The situation is different at Werner & Mertz: Frosch stands for the use of recycled material and therefore for clean oceans, but also leads to business success. The consumer buys our products,” Glaz sees a direct link between image and sales. The business figures seem to confirm the statement, as the business magazine WirtschaftsWoche reported in April 2019. According to GfK, Frosch’s market share grew by 14 percent between May 2016 and May 2018, and sales by 21 percent. The success is no coincidence, says Glaz: “After all, we have invested a lot, including in communications. As we know, out of sight means out of mind and consequently we had to put a lot of effort into making ourselves heard.” So it is important to educate consumers and sensitize them to the subject of recycling management.
Members of the quality association Gütegemeinschaft Rezyklate (Quality Association for Recycled Materials), which was founded for this purpose, include Jokey, producer of rigid plastic packaging with lids, Pöppelmann, the manufacturer of plastic products, and Werner & Mertz, who have their products certified according to the new RAL Quality Mark. The initiatives mentioned so far are important, but in view of the defined goals they are far from sufficient, as Wiener notes: “A growing number of companies are interested in the issues surrounding recyclability and the use of recycled materials, but only a small number start actual projects. The share of communication in the functioning of the recycling economy should never be underestimated. DSD boss Michael Viennese underlines: “The quality of the collections must become better. Starting from this year at least 50 per cent of all wastes collected in the yellow bags and the yellow bin are to be passed on for recycling. So far, however, in Germany on average 30 per cent of the sorted residues remain left over, including lots of garbage that cannot possibly be used “.
The Managing Partner at Werner & Mertz GmbH, Reinhard Schneider, is this year’s Winner of the German Environmental Award presented by the Federal Foundation for the Environment. Reinhard Schneider will be one of the top speakers at the independent Packaging Congress, Packaging 360°, being held at the Hilton Hotel in Frankfurt am Main on 28 and 29 November 2019. For more information about the program and registration please press here.