In the lead-up to K 2022, the German Mechanical Engineering Industry Association, VDMA is conducting a series of interviews with leading businesspersons in the industry, under the title Way2K. Here, an interview with Andreas Hirschfelder, Senior Vice President, Member of the Managing Board at Leonhard Kurz GmbH & Co. KG.
Q: How does Kurz drive sustainability as a surface finisher?
Hirschfelder: There are various methods we utilize. For example, over decades Kurz has developed and established a finishing process in the plastics industry that works with much thinner layers than are otherwise used in the painting industry, while maintaining the same surface performance. This saves a considerable amount of material, but even this thin dry coating needs a carrier medium, a polyester carrier, from which it is transferred in the processing operations. The polyester is a process-related waste that has so far mostly been recycled in the cement industry. Here we want to set a cycle in motion so that the PET material can be used a second time, ideally even several times.
Q: How does it work?
Hirschfelder: Our customers are often large-scale consumers, so we know where our material is used. That's why we started a collection system with our first customers. We pick up their waste material and recycle it at our own recycling plant so that it can be used to make high quality injection molded parts again. This is not technically easy, because the material is naturally not homogeneous and clean. That is stage one of the process. The second stage is to put the recovered material back into the polyester cycle in such a way that it can be used to make highest quality products, such as films. That is our ultimate goal.
Q: Do you have partners for this?
Hirschfelder: As processors, we have multiple successful strategies and ideas for keeping the material in the ideal cycle. But we need the industry to turn it into polyester and films again. We have already brought in a number of manufacturers of virgin material as cooperation partners. We also work together with film manufacturers. Another important point is that we develop our transfer product in such a way that we can easily recycle the carrier material. This is a change in thinking compared to the past, when we thought in linear terms. In these current times you have to develop a holistic view.
Q: Apart from saving material through thin coatings, what other sustainable developments are you working on?
Hirschfelder: Our surface decorations are now very similar in composition to injection molding materials. We have been able to show that components with our coatings can be recycled as desired and brought back to the same optical quality level with our thin-film technology. Our designs are not disruptive due to the low thickness of the material. Additionally, studies in the packaging industry have shown that sorting machines can still recognize the base plastic, such as the polypropylene or polyethylene, in packaging with our coatings. Finally, all our surface finishing methods can also decorate and repurpose recycled material in the same way as new material.
Q: Kurz is pursuing the goal of using up to 80 percent of raw materials of organic origin for decorations. Is that achievable?
Hirschfelder: Yes, we already use about 30 percent raw materials of organic origin. Paints and coatings existed even before the invention of plastics, so in the paint industry there are already coatings that are based on renewable raw materials. These are cellulose derivatives, for example, which are sufficient for many base coatings. We want to use more and more material that either consists directly of renewable raw materials or that is biodegradable. Today, we already have products that consist of 100 percent renewable raw materials. The challenge is to come very close to, and in some cases even surpass, the existing performance. This raw material change will lead to considerable reductions in the carbon footprint.
Q: Does that also involve a price difference?
Hirschfelder: As a rule, yes. It is something new that is not yet available in large quantities. We are aware of a change in thinking among our OEM customers and brand owners. Sustainable approaches are increasingly being rewarded. In some cases, this is already evident in the specifications. The awareness is growing – particularly in comparison to two years ago. Today, we have more of a sympathetic ear.
Q: What is the advantage for the Kurz company to follow such sustainable paths at an early stage?
Hirschfelder: If you are leading a movement, you invest in opportunities. The discussion about ESG, the criteria Environment - Governance - Social, will lead to regulations and laws, that's for sure. Those who, like us, get involved early on, have the chance to shape the debate. We suppose that people will continue to place importance on aesthetics, and on high quality surfaces for durable products. Here we can show possibilities of how this can be done sustainably. We have to stop always talking about self-denial when it comes to sustainability. Incidentally, as a family business, we have been working sustainably for 120 years. In the past, the focus was more on environmental protection and occupational health and safety, but today we are taking a holistic approach and also assume responsibility in the social sphere. The logical consequence was for us to join the UN Global Compact. This makes our commitment globally transparent.