With Julia Große-Wilde, the Gesamtverband Kunststoffverarbeitende Industrie (GKV) in Berlin has a new managing director since the beginning of the year. In an exclusive interview, she explains that one of the major challenges currently facing the plastics processing industry is the transition from a linear to a circular economy.

Schall: Ms. Große-Wilde, congratulations on your new position as Managing Director at Gesamtverband Kunststoffverarbeitende Industrie e.V. (GKV) as of January 1, 2021. What was your first official act at the beginning of the year?

Mrs. Große-Wilde: Thank you very much! My first official acts at the beginning of the year were to contact the supporting associations of the SHI and to sound out the priorities of the most important plastics topics in the industry for 2021.

Sound: Plastics are ubiquitous in every area - and yet they do not have a good image. What do you plan to do to raise the profile of plastics?

Ms. Große-Wilde: In fact, plastics are perceived very negatively. This often involves waste in the environment, especially in the sea. And there is no question that we need to prevent waste from entering the environment worldwide. But that is only one aspect of ecology. Because what many people simply do not know or perceive is that plastics have many ecological advantages. Keyword: carbon footprint. As GKV, we therefore see ourselves not only as the voice of the industry, but also as a mediator. Facts and education in the form of timely communication with various target groups from consumers to politicians are therefore an important part of our association’s work. In order to be perceived more strongly by the public, the GKV is seeking to join forces with other associations from the plastics industry in order to demonstrate the great importance of plastics with a joint communication strategy and thus improve its reputation and image in the public eye.

Schall: The principle of product responsibility applies. To what extent can the SHI influence companies to design their products in such a way that waste is avoided in production and environmentally sound recycling takes place after use?

Ms. Große-Wilde: Companies themselves have a vested interest in making their products fit for the future. Minimizing production waste or recycling it are not only ecologically but also economically sensible objectives. In addition, end-of-life considerations are increasingly being taken into account in the design of a product. Keyword: circular economy. As an association, we are part of this transformation of our industry. We get involved in strategic considerations, shape the dialog with policymakers to create the necessary framework conditions, and ensure an exchange of best practices.

Schall: The problem is certainly that the amount of packaging used by consumers is increasing, and so is the amount of waste. Where to put it?

Ms. Große-Wilde: It is a pity that packaging is often equated with waste, while we rarely perceive and certainly do not appreciate the protective function of packaging. In this context, packaging contributes a great deal to making our consumption more sustainable. If spoiled food ends up in the garbage can instead of on the plate, this is more harmful to the climate than the production of the packaging. In fact, however, we must ensure that plastics move more strongly in material flows through design-for-recycling consistent collection and sorting and continuous development in both recycling and the use of recyclates. This is the great challenge for our industry and also for our society.

Schall: The whereabouts and actual recycling of plastic waste exported abroad is often unclear; for example, most export volumes are not subject to any verification requirement for recycling. That's why we may encounter the contents of our own yellow bags again on the beach in the Far East. Can the SHI intervene here to remedy the situation?

Ms. Große-Wilde: If everything is above board, the yellow bag will not end up in Asia. In fact, most of this waste is recycled in Germany or in other European countries. And that’s a good thing. Waste is raw material. And if we want to make sure that these end up in the cycle and not in the sea, we are well advised to take care of our own waste locally.

Schall: What other challenges does the plastics processing industry have to face now and in the future?

Ms. Große-Wilde: The main challenge is the change from a linear to a circular economy. Recyclability and the use of recycled materials are two important factors here. Performance, quality and often hygiene requirements must be met, which is not a trivial matter. At the same time, the industry is confronted with a one-sided negative perception. In the future, it will be necessary to engage in even more dialog and to educate the public. If we want to achieve our climate targets, we cannot do without plastics – but need them for this!

Schall: How do you see German plastics processing companies positioned in terms of digitalization and automation?

Ms. Große-Wilde: The digital transformation is in full swing in the plastics processing industry. Transformation has been on the minds of entrepreneurs for a long time with the rationalization of jobs and the accompanying automation. This includes the optimization of internal processes such as plant availability and productivity. In concrete terms, this is reflected in the result that the German plastics processing industry is in pole position in terms of competitiveness and future viability thanks to digital technologies and know-how in the world of work and business. Rather, we see negative effects in the lack of a “data highway” in parts of Germany.

Schall: How important do you think it is for companies in the plastics processing industry to be present at trade fairs and to exchange ideas with customers in person - for example at Fakuma in the fall of 2021?

Ms. Große-Wilde: In general, and I’m not talking about any particular trade fair in the plastics processing industry, I consider it extremely important for companies in this sector to be present at trade fairs and thus to take advantage of the opportunity to exhibit their products and innovations and thus to highlight and promote future trends. In addition, trade fairs are also industry get-togethers and a good setting in which suppliers and interested parties can meet and exchange ideas.

Schall: kai - that's the plastics training initiative of the GKV, with which you want to whet young people's appetites for plastics. How interested are trainees in working with plastics?

Ms. Große-Wilde: The kai was first launched in 2007 as a plastics training initiative and is held exclusively during the K trade show. It helps young people to find their way around the world of training in the plastics industry more quickly and easily and to find the right contacts quickly and easily. The kai includes a good information program and, last but not least, is very popular with the target group because it offers a good platform for networking. Young people are very interested in plastics, but we are generally noticing less and less enthusiasm for a career that starts with dual training, as there is a tendency among young people to aim for higher educational qualifications.

Schall: Please tell us three aspects that you particularly want to promote as Managing Director at GKV.

Ms. Große-Wilde: On behalf of the GKV and our supporting associations, I will work to ensure that realistic and achievable targets are set for the plastics processing industry at the European level. At the national level, particular importance must be attached to ensuring that excessively rigid product specifications or even bans do not distort competition and ultimately create barriers to trade. Another aspect that is particularly close to my heart is maintaining and improving the public image of plastics. It cannot and should not be the case that the average consumer may have some reports from waste disposal in his head, but he does not know how good and versatile the recyclable material plastic is and what it can do.