Julia Große-Wilde was appointed new managing director of the German Association of Plastics Converters (GKV) in Berlin at the beginning of the year. In an exclusive interview, she explains that one of the current major challenges for the plastics processing industry is above all the transition from a linear to a circular economy.
Schall: Ms. Große-Wilde, we congratulate you on your new position as managing director of the German Association of Plastics Converters (GKV) as of the 1st of January, 2021. What was your first official act at the beginning of the year?
Ms. Große-Wilde: Thank you! I started the year by making contact with the associations that support the GKV and exploring the priorities of the industry’s most important plastics issues for 2021.
Schall: Plastics are omnipresent in every area of life, but they don’t have a good image. What do you plan on doing to improve their reputation?
Ms. Große-Wilde: Indeed, plastics are perceived very unfavourably. This is often due to waste in the environment, especially in our oceans. And there’s no doubt that we need to prevent the global discharge of waste into the environment. But this is only one aspect of ecology. What many people simply aren’t aware of or don’t recognise is that plastics have many ecological benefits. The key word here is carbon footprint. And thus at the GKV we not only see ourselves as the voice of the industry, but rather as a mediator as well. This is why facts and clarification in the form of timely communication with various target groups ranging from consumers to politicians are an important part of our work at the association. In order to raise public awareness concerning the GKV, we want to join forces with other associations from the plastics industry in order to demonstrate the great importance of plastics by means of a joint communication strategy, and thus to improve their reputation and image in the eyes of the public.
Schall: The principle of product stewardship applies. To what extent can the GKV influence companies to design their products such that waste is avoided in production and environmentally sound recycling is ensured at the end of the product’s service life?
Ms. Große-Wilde: The companies themselves have a vested interest in making their products fit for the future. Minimising and recycling production waste don’t just make good ecological sense, they’re economically meaningful objectives as well. Furthermore, the end of the respective product’s service life is being taken into consideration to an ever greater extent during the product design phase. The keyword here is circular economy. As an association, we’re part of this transformation of the industry sector. We get involved in strategic considerations, shape the dialogue with policymakers to create the necessary framework conditions and ensure the exchange of best practices.
Schall: The fact that the utilised quantities of consumer packaging are increasing is certainly problematic, as is the amount of waste generated as a result. How can we get rid of it all?
Ms. Große-Wilde: It’s a pity that packaging is often equated with waste, and we rarely recognise and certainly don’t appreciate the protective function of packaging. Packaging contributes a great deal to making consumption more sustainable. Spoiled food which ends up in the bin instead of on our dinner plates is more harmful to the climate than the production of the required packaging. In fact, however, we need to ensure that plastics play a more significant role within the flow of materials by means of design for recycling, consistent collection and sorting, as well as continuous further development where recycling and the use of recyclates are concerned. This is the great challenge for our industry, as well as for our society.
Schall: The whereabouts of plastic waste exported abroad, and whether or not it’s actually recycled, are often obscure – for example, most export volumes are not subject to any required verification of recycling. As a result, it’s entirely possible that we can encounter our own plastic waste on the beaches of the Far East. Can the GKV intervene to remedy this situation?
Ms. Große-Wilde: If all goes according to plan, our plastic waste doesn’t end up in Asia. In fact, most of this waste is recycled in Germany or in other European countries. And this is good. Waste is raw material. If we want to make sure that this raw material is recycled and doesn’t end up in the oceans, we’re well advised to take care of our own waste locally.
Schall: Which other challenges is the plastics processing industry facing now, and which will it have to deal with in the future?
Ms. Große-Wilde: The big challenge is above all the changeover from a linear to a circular economy. Recyclability and the use of recycled materials are two important factors in this respect. Suitability, quality and frequently hygiene requirements have to be fulfilled – a task which is by no means trivial. At the same time, the industry is confronted with a lopsided, negative image. In the future it will be important to engage in even more dialogue and educate the public. We can’t do without plastics if we want to achieve our climate goals – on the contrary, they’re important to this end!
Schall: How do you see the positioning of German plastics processing companies with regard to digitalisation and automation?
Ms. Große-Wilde: The digital transformation is in full swing in the plastics processing industry. Entrepreneurs have been thinking about this transformation for a long time, along with the streamlining of jobs and the accompanying automation. This includes the optimisation of internal processes including enhanced systems availability and productivity. In concrete terms, this is reflected in the fact that the German plastics processing industry is at the forefront in terms of competitiveness and future viability thanks to digital technologies and know-how in the world of work and business. Negative effects can in fact be attributed to the lack of an adequate data highway in some parts of Germany.
Schall: How important do you think it is for companies in the plastics processing industry to demonstrate their presence at trade fairs and exchange ideas with customers face to face – for example at Fakuma in the fall of 2021?
Ms. Große-Wilde: In general, and I'm not talking about any specific trade fair for the plastics processing industry, I consider it extremely important for the companies from our industry sector to be on hand at trade fairs and take advantage of the opportunity of exhibiting their products and innovations, and in doing so to focus attention on and promote future trends. Beyond this, trade fairs are also industry meets which provide an adequate setting in which suppliers and interested parties can get together and exchange ideas.
Schall: The kai is the plastics training initiative of the GKV, with which you want to get young people interested in plastics. How interested are Germany’s trainees in working with plastics?
Ms. Große-Wilde: The kai was first launched in 2007 as a plastics training initiative and takes place exclusively during the K trade fair. It helps young people find their way around the world of training in the plastics industry more quickly and easily, and find the right contacts rapidly and conveniently. The kai includes a solid information programme and it’s very popular with the target group because it offers a good platform for networking. Young people are very interested in plastics, but in general we’re detecting less and less enthusiasm for a career that begins with a work-study programme, because young people currently tend to aim for higher educational qualifications.
Schall: Please name three aspects you particularly want to push ahead with in particular as managing director of the GKV.
Ms. Große-Wilde: On behalf of the GKV and our supporting associations, I will work to ensure that realistic, achievable targets are set for the plastics processing industry at the European level. At national level, particular importance needs to be placed upon ensuring that excessively rigid product specifications, or even bans, don’t distort competition and ultimately create trade barriers. Another aspect which is particularly important to me is maintaining and improving the public image of plastics. It’s important to prevent a situation where the average consumer is being influenced by reports concerning waste disposal, but isn’t aware of how advantageous and highly versatile plastics are as a recyclable material, and what can be done with them.