Christoph Schumacher, director marketing at Arburg GmbH + Co KG discusses the role of plastics and sustainability in a Q&A from German industry group VDMA in advance of K 2022.
Q: How can you reconcile plastics and the environment?
Schumacher: From our point of view, plastic is not the main problem for our environment, it is the way it is handled. One of the ways to ensure proper handling is the recycling economy, however the sensible recycling of plastics alone is not enough. It is also necessary to be particularly careful with all our resources. For us as machine builders, this means that we are responsible for using as few resources as possible in the manufacture of our machines, but it also means that our customers can run processes with our machines that preserve resources. The complex problem is always having to look at the entire value chain. At the end of the day, it is about sustainably reducing the carbon footprint in plastics processing.
Q: What role does technology play here?
Schumacher: Technology undeniably plays a central role. It is necessary on all levels. We as machine builders are the enablers for climate protection and sustainability so to speak. Without our machines and processes, this cannot succeed. For example, we develop the technologies to sensibly design or support cycles. Sensibly means both in an ecological and economical sense simultaneously. Because sustainability will become a well-functioning business model.
Q: How can digitalization help in that regard?
Schumacher: From our perspective, digitalization currently supports mainly in two ways: the first is recycling. If we want to transform the chain of recyclable materials in the plastics industry into a recyclable material cycle, it is necessary, for example, for products to be collected after use and properly separated according to the type of plastic, so the materials can then be appropriately reprocessed, recycled and reused. To do this, the products must be labeled, and this can be done with the help of digitalization, for example via watermarks or QR codes. Of course, this digital labeling must be integrated into the production process.
The second way concerns us in particular as a machine manufacturer. At present, we equip our injection molding machines with many digital assistance systems in order to make the lingering major problem of fluctuating material quality manageable for our customers. Today, we are still in a situation where the quality of recycled materials is not yet standardized. Anyone who orders recyclates these days does not know exactly what they will get, in terms of composition and properties. We have to help our customers in this regard, and that can also be done through digitalized processes. Our systems and application technologies help customers to manufacture products that are as low-CO2 and cycle-oriented as possible.
Q: At K 2019, the circular economy was already a sustainability topic on the agenda. What has changed since then?
Schumacher: The German-speaking mechanical and plant engineering sector already displayed a lot of technology in that period and presented itself as an enabler for sustainability. Already at K 2019 we stated that we have solutions for the environmental and climate problems, which just have to be used. We are not the problem, we are part of the solution. That is still true, of course. We as machine builders have always faced up to social tasks and therefore see it as our task today, also in this context, to recognize pressing global problems and to contribute towards solving them. This consists of showing technological possibilities and the resulting business models.
Q: Awareness is poor in many parts of the world.
Schumacher: In many non-Western and not very highly developed countries, the problem is quite different from ours. If you don't know about waste collection, you don't know about the material cycle. And those who have been throwing their waste into the river in the village for generations cannot be reached with an appeal not to do so. Our contribution as an industry is to present technological solutions to turn materials into recyclable materials. That is our considerable task.
We have to create and support the awareness that it makes absolutely no sense to manufacture products from fossil raw materials, use them once and then throw them away. We have to show how the processing of such raw materials becomes easier and that a material cycle also yields profits. This is a huge task for German-speaking mechanical and plant engineering, but it is also a great opportunity. Thanks to our good reputation all over the world, we can succeed.
Q: What is Arburg doing as a company in the northern Black Forest in terms of sustainability?
Schumacher: We have been practicing environmental protection and the careful use of resources for decades, it's in our DNA, so to speak. This is also based on the idea of "traditional Swabian thriftiness", which means that nothing is wasted as a matter of principle. We operate using a global one-location production strategy. We can thus guarantee sustainable high-tech production. We are convinced that this production policy currently makes much more sense in terms of CO2 than producing at many locations worldwide. We are also triple certified, for environmental protection, quality and energy. For us, environmental protection and sustainability are therefore demonstrably in the nature of things.