In preparation for the world's leading plastics show in October — K 2019 — Thorsten Kühmann, managing director of VDMA, the German mechanical engineering association spoke about the challenges ahead of the plastics industry as it strives to address the issue of plastic waste and resolve its "image problem."
VDMA will center its focus on circular economy and closed loop concepts during K 2019, running Oct. 16-23 in Düsseldorf, Germany.
Q: Why is VDMA putting the spotlight on circular economy in its presentation at K 2019?
Kühmann: We are doing this because we have realized that we're facing an image problem when it comes to plastics.
Nowadays, plastics usually attract public attention when causing problems: [for example] polluting the environment or potentially endangering our health. Images and reports of how plastic waste is littering our oceans and the countryside are ever-present. These are serious problems indeed, and the industry needs to offer solutions.
We want to use K 2019 as an opportunity to show what needs to be done to avoid these waste problems and the resulting damage. We will demonstrate that closed loops are a possible solution.
Q: What can visitors see at K 2019?
Kühmann: We're pursuing two goals. At our pavilion, we will firstly present the entire cycle of circular economy in the plastics industry, from production via the use phase of plastics products to collecting, sorting, recycling and the subsequent return to production.
Our second goal is to make our visitors experience circular economy.
To achieve this, we will be working with partners from the entire plastics value chain at the trade fair, including raw material suppliers, processors and recyclers, to demonstrate how a closed loop works.
At K 2019, it should become clear that the plastics industry is taking care of the waste problem and that it already has proposals for effective solutions.
Q: What are the biggest challenges in the practical implementation of circular economy?
Kühmann: There are several challenges. It's extremely important to bear in mind that cycles can only function well if they are profitable.
Many plastics processors currently use virgin material rather than recycled material, simply because it's cheaper. At the end of the day, the consumer usually goes for the cheaper product in the supermarket.
Those who use recycled materials would lose out because their products would be more expensive and thus left on the shelves. In order to increase the use of recycled materials, fixed quotas are needed to create a level playing field. The EU Plastics Directive provides for such quotas. Companies therefore need a new business model.
The other challenge is to create reliable quality standards for recycled materials. These don't currently exist, meaning that those who use recyclates never really know exactly what quality they are getting. This makes the processes less secure. If material quality fluctuates, production cannot be controlled as reliably as with standardized new materials. Recycled materials would be much easier to accept if they were standardized.
And finally, there is a problem with quantity. Those who are currently prepared to use recyclates, do not know whether they will actually be able to obtain the quantities they require over a longer period of a few years.
Q: Is the circular economy feasible from a technological point of view?
Kühmann: There are still matters that need to be clarified. But there are already technological solutions for standard processes such as sorting, shredding and recycling. There will certainly be improvements in that regard. Technology is not the main problem in the plastics recycling industry.
Q: What role does product design play?
Kühmann: Product design must be approached in a different way in the circular economy. Until now, products have followed a design that has been all about functionality and ultimately appearance.
There has been no obligation or consistent practice for a sound ecodesign. In fact, all products, including plastics products, should be checked in terms of their recyclability. At the moment, this is not happening. It's neither a requirement, nor common practice. Of course, it would help if products were designed in a recyclable way in the first place.
Q: Europe is only responsible for a fraction of the plastic waste in our oceans. Will consistently focusing on a circular economy in this region make any kind of difference?
Kühmann: Awareness about the waste problem in the world's oceans is particularly high in Europe. As a result, the image of plastics is suffering, especially in Germany.
It is true that the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research has discovered that 90 percent of annual marine pollution is caused by plastics from 10 rivers in Asia and Africa, but the problem affects us all. Just think of microplastics in fish. That's why people here are concerned. A circular economy in Europe means setting a good example.
We can show other countries how it works and that it does indeed work. Usually, the main problem is a lack of, or inadequate, waste management. Without waste management, there can be no circular economy. We would like our systems to be adapted throughout the world. Not necessarily to match each other one-for-one, but to be used as guidance.
This is why we are showcasing them at K 2019 and why it is good to drive them forward in Europe. The task is extremely complex. It has taken us years to get to where we are now, but other regions don't have so much time. It really is time to act now by learning from those who are already doing it.