Interview with Dr. habil. Thomas Probst of the German Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal
The corona crisis has disrupted numerous markets – including the market for plastics recycling. Until about three years ago, the cost of recyclates was almost as high as the cost of virgin material. The price gap between virgin and recycled materials has widened further and further as a result of falling prices in crude oil quotations. The Fakuma trade fair team spoke with Dr. Thomas Probst of the German Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal regarding the issue of recycling.
Dr. Probst, what are your expectations for the plastics industry in the coming year?
The plastics manufacturers and the plastics processors are suffering from ongoing upheavals, in particular sales problems, plastics bashing and littering. And all of these problems are linked to each other. The Gordian knot must finally be cut – consumers and politicians should become aware of the advantages of the flow of materials.
The aforementioned problems have been building up for years. Corona made the situation considerably worse. But a crisis also harbours the opportunity for reorientation. We’ll certainly have lots of catching up to do from the middle to the end of 2021, and this will continue to escalate. The transformation of the plastics industry towards more sustainability has begun. And this needs to be actively communicated. Plastics recycling is one of the positive aspects that has to be actively communicated. For this reason, the plastics industry must make a commitment to plastics recycling – unconditionally and globally. Beyond this, plastics recycling generates global opportunities and markets.
What are the most recent developments for plastics in the packaging sector?
Changes in packaging plastics can be readily portrayed. First of all, there’s clearly a general trend away from plastics – unfortunately. Packaging made of paper, or more precisely paper composites, is winning out in this respect. But this is a sham because these composites necessitate a thin plastic film – applied either thermally or glued on. In addition, barrier layers in paper composites are essential in order to protect the packaged goods (moisture, grease, evaporation, oxygen barrier). Other composite systems are available as well, but ultimately none of them is favourable for further processing in the paper mills.
The next trend involves shifting the materials used in lightweight packaging away from polyolefins and polystyrene, and towards PET. Unfortunately, insoluble compounds are also being used and brought into circulation to an ever greater extent, for example between the label and the packaging. In the case of hollow bodies, for example, the paper component is applied hot to the plastic. As a result, the recyclate is contaminated with paper fibres. As a result, the recyclate is contaminated with paper fibres. However, more and more positive trends are also slowly gaining ground thanks to D4R – design for recycling. D4R serves as an important factor if the recyclers’ specifications are complied with.
The recycling market has declined sharply during the course of 2020 – how can recycling be made attractive again in your opinion?
Immediate efforts on the part of packagers and distributors will be necessary in order to assure that plastics recycling will continue to exist at all. These efforts involve much larger quantities of LVP plastics, which must contain recyclates. Unfortunately, many people have not understood that an additional 500,000 tons of plastics will have to be recycled by 2025 – this is the result of a voluntary commitment on the part of the plastic packagers. Furthermore, the demanding quota of 63% for mechanical recycling stipulated by the German packaging law (VerpackG) for LVPs has to be met as well.
And thus it’s not so much a question of putting pressure on recyclers as on the manufacturers. The good news is that renowned brand-name manufacturers and discounters are already relying on the sustainability of plastics recycling, and are thus dealing with product responsibility issues. But these efforts are just getting started and are hardly adequate in themselves! Recyclers and plastics processors need to be rewarded for the associated avoidance of greenhouse gases, reduced energy use and conservation of resources.
What exactly makes the recycling market so difficult? After all, it serves as the basis for successful circular economy.
The upheavals experienced in the markets have made it clear that pricing varies greatly for virgin material and recyclates. Virgin material is ultimately linked to the price of crude oil, which is currently unbeatably cheap. However, recycled plastics include the entire recycling chain which encompasses collection, sorting, processing and utilisation. Until early 2019, the cost of recyclates was roughly the same as the cost of virgin material. The price gap between virgin and recycled materials has widened further and further as a result of falling prices in crude oil quotations – a situation which has been further aggravated by the corona crisis.
As a buzzword, we’ve been familiar with the term “bioplastics” for several years now. What’s this all about, what’s the status of current developments, and how and where do you think bioplastics can be used?
Bioplastics cover a broad range including renewable raw materials, degradability and so-called drop-in solutions. This makes the question a bit difficult to answer. With regard to littering, bioplastics would have excellent chances if their degradability was appropriately triggered. In contact with sea water, soil or light, these plastics should decompose within a given period of time. But people hardly venture to address the problems which persist in this area – for example home composting, additivation, the mode of degradability into microparticles, complete decarbonisation and the price structure. Bioplastics have thus far been successful niche markets. For plastics used in large volumes, for example in packaging, they’re still too expensive based alone on production and processing costs. However, the tide is turning when we consider environmental costs as a whole. But bioplastics also have an ecological component which usually goes unnoticed.
Thank you, Dr. Probst, for this highly interesting information!