With K 2022 looming ahead, the plastics and rubber industry is gearing up for the highpoint of the sector's calendar: the triennial, completely sold out, eight-day marathon trade show in Düsseldorf, Germany, this month.
And thanks to that triennial cycle, this year's 70th anniversary of the fair looks poised to take place virtually untouched by the turbulence of the intervening years. Nonetheless, things have changed.
There was a pandemic, during which lockdowns and multiple travel restrictions brought the risks of globalization forcefully home. The system of established, wide-reaching production and trade networks that ensured an uninterrupted flow of goods, raw materials, money and even workers came to a screeching halt. Shipping bottlenecks played havoc with distribution and supply chains. The risks of the "just-in-time" manufacturing model became glaringly obvious. Contingency plans were in short supply.
As a wake-up call, that would have been enough. And, indeed, businesses around the world have taken a hard look at how to become more resilient in the face of potential catastrophes. Interest in local production has revived, and business are increasingly maintaining a local inventory.
However, more was to come. Geopolitical tensions rose, causing countries to discover the vulnerabilities of dependencies on critical raw materials from — in some cases — only one or two sources. The importance of resource security has become starkly evident with the advent of the Russia/Ukraine conflict. That conflict has caused energy prices to skyrocket and has created huge uncertainty about the economic recovery.
On top of this is the pressure on businesses to disclose information about their climate impact and to decarbonize their operations — pressure that has increased following the agreements of the Glasgow Climate Pact, and that is likely to continue doing so. Regulations mandating this are being considered.
To put it bluntly, in the years since K 2019, a lot has changed. The impact on the plastics industry has been fundamental.
The themes that have been chosen for K 2022 reflect this change. For the first time, climate protection is one of them, next to digitalization and the circular economy. They are themes that resonate with the industry.
The digital transformation received an enormous boost during the pandemic, and that momentum, propelled by the need for more resilient supply chains, efficiency and sustainability, continues to grow. Digital technologies such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, the Internet of Things and cloud computing are paving the way for the transition to a more resource-efficient and circular economy.
The increased focus on local-to-local is reducing the volume of components and products shipped around the world, helping companies take steps to reduce their carbon footprint.
Importantly, the pandemic taught us something else as well: Namely, that we also need physical contact, opportunities to meet with one another in person, face to face, to walk and to talk. It's why we'll be in Düsseldorf Oct. 19-26. We'll see you there!
Karen Laird is editor of Sustainable Plastics. Follow her on Twitter @karelynnlaird.