In an interview, Stefan Dierks, Director Sustainability, Corporate Communications and Sustainability at Melitta Group Management, talks about the concept of “Plastics of the Future”.
Mr. Dierks, for almost 13 years you have helped Tchibo achieve a sustainable orientation. You are now with Melitta. What distinguishes the new from the old task?
Both Tchibo and Melitta are globally active family businesses with a long tradition. Both companies are committed to sustainability and thus to a future worth living. And they do not do this solely to safeguard their business activities, but because it is an expression of their attitude to the role of a company in society. That’s why my old and new tasks are very similar in many respects: to make a contribution to sustainable development together with my team. However, the requirements are becoming increasingly stringent as a result of globalisation.
Sustainability has to do with attitude, you say. What do you mean by that in concrete terms?
Many companies have come to the conclusion that sustainability is a necessary condition for securing their business. In my opinion, however, it is essential to see the purpose of a company not only in achieving internal goals, but also in making a positive contribution to the sustainable development of society. Only with this attitude can one courageously and successfully make the necessary decisions to transform business activity. For Melitta, sustainability is one of the three corporate goals from the point of view of the entrepreneurial family. This is also anchored in our values.
The range of the Melitta Group is considerable. It ranges from coffee to household foil. If you compare the divisions at Melitta, where do you see increased pressure on your employer to act?
You have already mentioned two key areas: The already existing challenges in the countries where coffee is grown, such as climate change, gender and youth issues and market structures, are being reinforced in the Coffee Division by the current price crisis. Here we are currently participating intensively in the sector-wide dialogue on how we can tackle these issues in a coordinated manner. We are dealing extensively with the very emotional and not always appropriate plastics debate – we will help shape the New Plastics Economy, especially in the area of household films, and are working on innovative solutions for our customers.
They have been advocating sustainable business for many years. Were there moments that you particularly fulfilled? Or even moments when you thought that this was not going far enough?
Of course, the moments in which a project was successfully implemented and we can achieve lasting positive effects were and are particularly fulfilling. For example, when products and their value chains are improved with regard to ecological and social aspects. On the other hand, many changes can only be achieved through joint, precompetitive measures. It is a pity again and again how difficult it is for many participants to get involved in such cooperation. As part of the Melitta cultural change process, we actively promote cross-company and cross-company cooperation, particularly in the area of sustainability. Against this background, we will actively approach further potential cooperation partners in the coming months. All companies must and can go further together in order to be faster and more effective.
At present, plastic is anchored in public perception in a very pejorative way. What does this mean for the many B2C products that Melitta has on offer?
For many applications, plastic is also the ecologically most sensible solution. But if this is to remain the case, we have to completely change the value chains. We call this concept “plastic of the future”. To achieve this goal, we will switch from fossil to renewable and recycled raw materials, further increase the resource efficiency in the chains, make the products recyclable and offer solutions that can be used several times wherever possible. We are also committed to expanding material recycling structures and developing biodegradable plastics for regions where there are no collection and recycling structures yet. In order to strengthen this target image, we are currently concluding the New Plastics Economy Commitment with the EllenMacArthur Foundation.
Are there alternative packaging materials that are already being tested?
We are currently converting some of our products to test their market acceptance and practical feasibility in the supply chain. We are currently preparing the launch of a household film made from 70 percent renewable raw materials. In Italy, through our Cuki division, we offer products made entirely from post-consumer recycled materials. And in September 2019, in cooperation with the Neste company, we launched a cling film made from 15 percent recycled resources from the food cycle. Of course, we want to further increase the proportion of alternative raw materials in these and all other suitable products. Our goal is to feed all products and packaging into closed material cycles wherever possible.
Paper is not per se better than plastic. But trade decisions – think of the Rewe bag, the replacement of plastic with paper – follow the mainstream, contrary to better knowledge. Doesn’t this damage the credibility of the sustainability debate?
In the context you mentioned, it is important that paper bags do not replace plastic bags 1:1. By a corresponding voluntary self-commitment of the trade, Germany is already since 2018 with regard to the per capita consumption of plastic bags below the target mark of the EU directive for 2025. Basically I agree with you, however, that the not always appropriate discussion about plastics and their (alleged) alternatives often harms rather than benefits sustainability. The industry then often faces requirements which it has to meet for market reasons, but which do not necessarily lead to the desired results.
In your opinion, where do the implementation of sustainable processes hide the most? Where should more be done?
All in all, I would like politics and society to be oriented towards facts and long-term necessities rather than emotions and particular interests. Of course, it is not enough to wish others to behave differently: Society, that is what we all are. This means that each and every one of us can and should commit ourselves to sustainable development. In our own behaviour and in our individual environment. Against this background, we, as a company, are committed to contributing to overarching solutions.
You are speaking at the Packaging360° Congress. Can you give us a first insight into what you will say there?
In particular, I will discuss how Melitta intends to tread the path to the “plastic of the future”, the challenges we face there and how we meet them. It will also be about the fact that, in my view, it is necessary to enter into higher-level cooperations for certain goals.
If you had three wishes, what would you wish for in terms of sustainability directly from the retail trade, the consumer goods industry and consumers?I would like to see retailers include sustainability even more than before in their marketing activities. There are already a number of positive examples here that other retail companies could follow. The consumer goods industry can still initiate or engage in active cooperation in many areas. We need cooperation, including cross-sectoral cooperation, in order to achieve the necessary effects. Finally, I would like consumers to take an active interest in sustainable products and to make a conscious decision in favour of them. Unfortunately, sustainability is still a niche in many segments.
And, if you will allow me, I would also like to express a wish to politicians: here I would like to see more focus on impact and practicable solutions rather than on rigid regulations, which are very complex to implement but have little effect. All in all, I see us as a society on the right track, and it is now important to continue on this path consistently and openly to new ideas.