Interview with Dr. habil. Thomas Probst of the German Federal Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal e.V.

The Corona crisis has shaken up the markets – including that of plastics recycling. Until about three years ago, the cost of recycling was almost on par with virgin materials. Due to price declines in crude oil quotations, the gap between virgin and recycled products has widened. The Fakuma trade show team talked about recycling with Dr. Thomas Probst from the German Association for Secondary Raw Materials and Waste Disposal (Bundesverband Sekundärrohstoffe und Entsorgung e.V. – bvse).

Dr. Probst, what expectations do you have for the plastics industry going into the next year?

The plastics manufacturers and the plastics processors suffer from ongoing distortions, these are in particular sales problems, plastics bashing and littering. And these points are, moreover, all interconnected. The Gordian knot must finally be cut – consumers and policymakers should become aware of the benefits of the material flow.

The aforementioned problems have been building for years. Corona made the situation much worse. But a crisis also holds the opportunity for reorientation. So we certainly have a significant backlog in mid to late 2021, which will continue to grow. The transformation of the plastics industry toward greater sustainability has begun. And this must be actively communicated. The recycling of plastics is one of the positive aspects that must be actively communicated. The plastics industry must therefore make an unreserved global commitment to plastics recycling. Moreover, plastics recycling generates global opportunities and markets.

What are the latest developments in plastics for packaging?

The changes in packaging plastics can be well illustrated. First, there is clearly the general trend here – away from plastics – unfortunately. Paper packaging, or more precisely paper composites, are the winners here. And the eyewash here is that the composites can’t even do without a thin plastic film, hot-applied or bonded. In addition, barrier layers in paper composites are essential to protect the packaged goods (moisture, grease, evaporation, oxygen barrier). Although there are other composite systems, none of them is ultimately advantageous for further processing in paper mills.

The next trend consists of material shifts in lightweight packaging, away from polyolefins and away from polystyrene to PET. Unfortunately, we also see that insoluble composites, for example between labels and packaging, are increasingly being placed on the market. In the case of hollow bodies, for example, the paper portion is hot-applied to the plastic. And these paper fibers are then found in the regranulates. However, through D4R – Design for Recycling – there are also increasingly positive trends that are starting to take hold. D4R is an important adjusting screw if the recyclers’ specifications are observed.

In 2020, the recyclate market is on its knees - how can recycling be made attractive again from your point of view?

In order to guarantee that plastic recycling can still exist at all, immediate efforts are required from packers and distributors. And these efforts involve significantly larger volumes of LVP plastics, which must include recyclates. Unfortunately, many have not understood that an additional 500,000 tons of plastics will need to be recycled by 2025; this results from a voluntary commitment by plastic packagers. In addition, the demanding quotas of 63 percent for mechanical recycling from the Packaging Act must be met for LVP.

So it’s not so much an issue that puts pressure on recyclers, but on producers. The good news is that well-known brand-name manufacturers and discounters are already focusing on the sustainability of plastics recycling and thus living up to their product responsibility. However, these efforts are at the beginning and are far from enough! Recyclers and plastics processors must be rewarded for the associated avoidance of greenhouse gases, reduced energy use and resource conservation.

What exactly makes the recycling market so difficult? It is, after all, the basis for a successful circular economy.

The dislocations in the markets have made it clear that the pricing of virgin and recycled products is significantly different. New products are ultimately tied to the price of crude oil, which is currently unrivaled in terms of cheapness. Recycled plastics, however, represent the entire recycling chain – that is, collection, sorting, processing and recovery. Until early 2019, the cost of recycling was roughly on par with virgin materials. Due to price declines in crude oil quotations, which have received an additional boost from Corona, the gap between virgin and recycled products has widened.

"Bioplastics" is something we've known as a buzzword for a few years now. What is it all about, what is the status of developments, how and where are they applicable from your point of view?

Bioplastics are a broad field spanned by renewable raw materials, degradability and so-called drop-in solutions. Therefore, the answer is not simple. With regard to littering, bioplastics would have excellent opportunities if their degradability were appropriately triggered. When exposed to seawater, soil or light, these plastics should disintegrate after a period of time. However, people hardly dare to point out existing problems on this topic – these are, for example, home composting, additivation, the form of degradation into microparticles, complete decarbonization, and the price structure. So far, bioplastics have been successful in niches. For bulk plastics such as packaging, they have been too expensive so far, if you calculate production costs and processing alone. The tide turns, however, if one were to look at environmental costs as a whole. But bioplastics also carry an ecological backpack that mostly goes unnoticed.

Thank you very much Dr. Probst for your interesting information!