The loop economy can only succeed when everyone works together

6 September, 22
Although the Germans are the world champions in segregating refuse, most food packs made from plastic films do not end up in recycling but in incineration.

“Politicians urgently need to create incentives for plastic recycling”

Although the Germans are the world champions in segregating refuse, most food packs made from plastic films do not end up in recycling but in incineration. This is because they mostly consist of a plastic mix, which does not allow them to be separated for recycling. In order to move one step closer towards the loop economy, packaging manufacturer MULTIVAC, one of the largest manufacturers in the sector, has developed a plastic film made from a recyclable mono material. A material that can even be used again for food products. The problem however: Sorting machines in recycling facilities are not yet able to detect the new material and sort it cleanly. Christian Traumann, Group President at MULTIVAC, is therefore calling on politicians to create incentives for recycling facilities to invest in updating their machines.

A study by the Industrievereinigung Kunstoffverpackungen (Industry Association for Plastic Packaging in Germany) shows that plastic packs currently enjoy a high level of acceptance among German consumers. According to this study, significantly more than half of all Germans (55.9 percent) use packs made from plastic to keep food fresh for longer. “The corona pandemic has not only influenced consumer behaviour, it has also changed the perception of packaging,” says Mara Hancker, Director of the IK Industry Association. “The population has become much more conscious of the importance of secure supplies of food and medication. This appreciation is a welcome development away from “plastic bashing”, but it does not of course relieve us of the responsibility of keeping plastics out of the environment and doing much more on recycling.” The survey results confirm that 62.3 percent of those surveyed want to have more easily recyclable materials for food packs.

Material recycling of plastic films has hardly been possible up to now

That is because the recycling of plastic films is complicated. One example: Sliced products such as salami and cheese usually reach the consumer in so-called thermoformed packs. This type of packaging consists of two film types – a thicker lower web, from which the packaging machine thermoforms a tray using compressed air, and a thinner upper web that is sealed to the lower web. A pack, which protects the food securely and extends the shelf life, but which generally ends up after use in the “Non-recyclable” bin and is ultimately incinerated. Material recycling is barely possible. Why? Because the films consist of a mixture of several plastics, which perform different functions – including providing a barrier against oxygen and moisture, and also enabling the upper and lower webs to be sealed. And this multi-layer material can not be separated again. “This linear plastics economy is not an acceptable state of affairs in the long run,” says Christian Traumann, Group President of MULTIVAC. “In order to reduce CO2 emissions and protect the environment, we should find a way of creating the transition to a loop economy with plastic packaging films.”

MULTIVAC is developing recyclable plastic mono material for packs

In order to move a step closer to the loop economy, MULTIVAC has developed APET+, a plastic mono material for sustainable thermoformed packs, which does not require an additional sealing layer. It can be recycled as a single-source material. Another benefit: New food packs can be made from the recycled material. That does not go without saying. Because this reuse is forbidden for example with polypropylene (PP), one of the most frequently used plastics in the food sector. MULTIVAC is also engaged with R-Cycle – an initiative, which looks for technical solutions to make the composition of plastics detectable by machines. It is conceivable for example to have a database, in which plastics manufacturers store the film types. Using a QR code on the film, recycling facilities could gain access to the data, and then identify the material before segregating it according to type.

“In order to reinforce the sustainability of plastic packs, we are going at high speed with our development efforts.”

The loop economy can therefore begin? Not quite. The problem is that refuse sorting equipment does not have scanners, which can detect recyclable plastics in the “Non-recyclable” refuse stream. Up to now the volume of recyclable mono material has been too small for the investment in the necessary systems. A chicken-and-egg problem, familiar to the E-car sector with its mutual dependence between the number of electric vehicles and charging stations. In both cases it is a question of who makes the first step, so that the technology can be rolled out. “In order to reinforce the sustainability of plastic packs, we are going at high speed with our development efforts,” underlines Christian Traumann. “The loop economy can however only get into gear, if all the other stakeholders in the recycling chain follow suit – particularly the recycling facilities. Here the politicians urgently need to create incentives for plastic recycling. It does not make any sense for the food industry either to invest in environmentally-friendly packs, if ultimately they end up in refuse incineration.”

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