A “circular economy” as the K 2019 mantra

Almost all K 2019 exhibitors highlighted their sustainability claims and goals. We spoke to several key industry journalists about the prevalence of this trend and how achievable the targets are.

If you had to pick one key and undeniable theme at K 2019 in Düsseldorf, it was the notion of how plastics can fit and function within a circular economy. 
Amid the sustainability debate, various industries have come under pressure to “reduce, reuse and recycle” as the issue of plastic waste hogs the consumer spotlight. Brand owners are focusing on recyclability, while (local) authorities are struggling to organize the collection and recycling of all these waste streams. 
Unsurprisingly, therefore, when walking around K 2019, the world’s biggest trade fair for plastics and rubbers, there was virtually no company present that did not feature some sort of sustainability claim on either its renewable material, supply chain or process. We asked the views of a few veteran industry journalists on this topic.

How fair is the criticism?

The plastics sector has faced a deluge of criticism, mainly related to the plastic waste ultimately ending up in our oceans. Social media channels are only giving greater traction for environmentalists. 
David Eldridge of Injection World accepts the validity of concern around plastics, but stresses that some perspective is required, particularly in terms of the food waste reduction benefits that plastic packaging actually provides. “I think the blame has been raised to a completely top level position in the public’s mind about the environment. Plastic packaging is mostly criticized, even though food waste is a far bigger problem in terms of the carbon footprint that it generates,” he notes. 
For Stephen Moore of Plastics Today, the industry’s initial approach has not been helpful. “Part of the bad rap for plastics is down to the industry always having been reactive in facing the environmental issues, rather than being proactive from the start,” he notes. This balance is changing, however. “Some of the big plastic manufacturers are buying up recycling and biobased feedstock companies. They realize that they cannot do this alone and need to collaborate,” he notes. 
For Frank Esposito of Plastics News, progress is being made, but the economics of plastics recycling is still a major job in countries like the US, making goals very difficult to achieve. “If in the US, 7 out of every 10 bottles are going to landfill, then it is a tough challenge,” he says. “There is not enough of an incentive on the part of companies to do that and not enough recycled material available,” Esposito adds.
Robert Grace of Plastics Engineering concurs, indicating that a change in philosophy on both the part of industry and the consumer is warranted. “The plastics industry is struggling to get recycling rates up and yet in the US market, many brand owners have fought returnable bottle schemes that are shown to raise the reclaim rate significantly. Every time you tell the consumer that they need to take an extra step beyond tossing it into a bin, including just reading the bottom of the label, may already be too much,” he adds.
One thing is clear, however, companies need to be seen to be green, or at least to be addressing the issue. As Biju Pillai of Chemical Weekly notes: “If you are active in the plastics space, you need to go circular, simply because your customers are asking for it. If you don’t offer that broad portfolio you risk losing your customers tomorrow.” 
For Pillai, it is brand owners who are driving the change as they are the ones who are in touch with the end consumer and know what is required better than the upstream suppliers when it comes to going circular. “When you see companies like Unilever making commitments on reducing plastic waste by a certain percentage, suppliers will see that this is the long-term trend and that they will need to be prepared,” he notes.

Reasons for optimism?

The level of innovation on display at K 2019, certainly gave reasons for cheer that true sustainability progress is being made. 
Frank Esposito of Plastics News, notes that a lot of companies are devoting a lot of resources towards the sustainability issue, but points out the challenge involved in setting these targets. “You are asking companies who have to report their earnings on a quarterly basis to make decisions that run 5-10 years in the future,” he points out.
Robert Grace echoes the commercial considerations around profit goals and shareholders that need to be taken into account before the industry can make substantial progress on this issue. He does believe, however that many of these goals will have been achieved by K 2022. “Things are moving at warp speed right now and I can’t think of a booth I’ve been at where this hasn’t been the main topic. Companies will have to deliver – they can’t just brag about it,” he adds.
Stephen Moore of Plastics Today notes the wide list of targets that is emerging, which is driving a lot of the work in this area. “Whether these targets are achievable or not is a serious question as at the end of the day you have to have the recycling channels in place. You have to have the validation in place to track the materials,” he adds, interestingly pointing to blockchain technologies as a key advance within this area.
David Eldridge of Injection World notes that the debate around the chemical recycling of plastics will be a particularly interesting one. “While mechanical recycling has been around for quite a few years, it’s interesting that all of the big chemical companies are now getting involved,” he notes. He does stress, however, that a combination of chemical and mechanical recycling technologies will be required to make 2025 sustainability targets achievable. 

Packaging of the future

But just because everyone is speaking about sustainability doesn’t mean that packaging formats created purely for convenience have disappeared. The current debate may well lead to a step shift in the uninterrupted adoption of convenient formats such as multi material pouches, which are notoriously difficult to recycle. Even better still would be if these pouches could be made from mono materials. 
For Grace, a shift will come once consumers are drawn to this issue and they assume personal responsibility in countering it. “People seem to love these flexible stand-up pouches and they are very convenient and user friendly. They take less space and they are unbreakable basically,” he notes. “But up until now all of them have been virtually unrecyclable because they are technically very complex. They are multi-layer, including a metallic layer and several different resins,” he notes. 
Grace adds that there is a lot of work ongoing to turn these into mono material pouches and that ultimately tomorrow’s winning products will meet both sustainability and price goals. “If you provide a product that checks the sustainability box and makes someone feel better about what they are using or not using and if you can deliver it in a user-friendly format and at a competitive price, then you stand to greatly accelerate the transition to greener options. The millennial generation is acutely attuned to environmental issues and will make their decisions in large part based on what’s best for the planet,” Grace concludes.
Frank Esposito of Plastics News highlights the holistic consumer shift around this issue. “There is a whole aisle now full of organic-based products which didn’t exist in the past, so perhaps we will see a biobased materials section too. The younger consumers are the ones who are most interested in this area and they will be the ones we sell to in a few years’ time,” he adds.

Ensuring that plastics are part of the solution

Sustainability claims on the rise on product packaging to meet the demands of today’s more green-minded consumer. But at K 2019, it was clear that there is substance to what is being claimed. While some companies are clearly jumping on the sustainability bandwagon, the majority of materials experts and engineers are putting their minds to the issue and assessing how they can make a contribution to sustainability efforts. 
Plastics can be part of the solution within a circular economy, but it will require continued innovation throughout the supply chain to reach the ambitious 2025 and 2030 targets that many CPG companies have set. 
EMG has over 25 years of experience in supporting our clients within the plastics and rubbers space and is a key partner in getting their message out there.


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