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Stefan Kaiser, Managing Director, Vecoplan AG.
Stefan Kaiser, Managing Director, Vecoplan AG.
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The EU Commission has defined plastics as one of five key areas in its Circular Economy Action Plan. Europe's plastics processors have already been working on how to play a part in circular economy under VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association's Blue Competence initiative. The recycling company Vecoplan AG is one of them. Stefan Kaiser, its Managing Director speaks from his perspective on plastics recycling.

Q: What relevance does circular economy have for Vecoplan?

Mr. Kaiser:
Circular economy is one of the big challenges of the future. It will help to improve the overall image of the plastics industry with respect to production, processing and recycling. We simply have to develop an understanding of dealing sustainably with plastics.

For us at Vecoplan, circular economy is important because a big part of our business lies in the recycling and waste treatment area. We have been striving for a long time for the reintroduction of valuable resources into the cycle.

Q: For glass, metals or waste-paper, the recycling rate is over 90%. For plastics, it is noticeably lower. Why is it so difficult to recycle plastics?

Mr. Kaiser:
We have a broad mix of plastics that are entered into the cycle. Often, we have materials that do not consist of one mono-polymer but of several plastics. Think of multi-layer-films, for example, where various plastics are combined in a product.

The more composites you create, the more difficult it becomes to divide these composites from one another. Accordingly, recycling plastics is difficult and expensive. Therefore, it is very important to think of the recyclability already during the product design phase. You could, for instance, make a film thicker but only use one plastic material for it.

If, instead, you use several layers of different plastics to make it extra-thin and have little material usage, recycling becomes difficult, respectively.

Q: This possibly makes the film more expensive, however.

Mr. Kaiser:
We would have to consider the costs over the complete life cycle of a product. Recycling costs are part of such a consideration. It becomes clear very quickly then that though you can be highly efficient in the production, it is overall not efficient because recycling becomes much more complex.

Everyone who releases plastic products to the market should think about how their products can be used sustainably.

Q: Do we need political regulations to achieve such a rethinking?

Mr. Kaiser:
You shouldn't call for the legislator too quickly. However, the past has revealed that legal requirements, regulations and standards can bring an entire industry forward. We have a problem with recycling and, therefore, politics have to establish requirements for a recyclable product design.

This is absolutely essential, in my opinion, to prevent losing the acceptance of plastics. We have to put the advantages of plastics more strongly into the spotlight.

Also in order to show where it is used and which value it has. And we have to show what is possible in recycling and what can be made from these plastics.

Q: Are there already technologies to recycle plastics in high quality?

Mr. Kaiser:
In the past years, the quality of recyclates has considerably improved. Today, we are able to recycle high-purity plastics with recycling technologies. I think, currently the big problem is the need for creating an acceptance for it on the recipients-end.

Plastics processors must be made aware that apart from the primary material, there is often the possibility to use recycled plastic. These granulates, of course, must meet the standards that the processors have; however, it has to be demonstrated how it can work.

We also talk to injection molders. They can tell us what a recyclate needs to be made of to use it for injection molding, and so that it may be processed in an equal fashion. Many processors still believe that these secondary plastics are more difficult to process and that they compromise a safe production.

Q: How big is the potential of recyclable plastics?

Mr. Kaiser:
A recyclate cannot equal a new product. You need to be aware of this. However, you have to look at the applications that a processor wants to achieve. He needs to ask himself for every product whether he needs new plastic for it, or whether, from a qualitative perspective, a recyclate would be sufficient.

There are already companies that are doing it this way, however, they are just a few in number. There are enough use cases where you can say a recyclate would be sufficient. However, the acceptance on the recipients-end must be there – on the plastics processors side and their customers.

When the customers have finally accepted this, it will lead manufacturers to make high quality products from recyclates. Because then the amounts are so big that it will be profitable for them. The higher the acceptance, the lower the price.

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