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VDMA Printing and Paper Technology Association "Circular Competence": "If It Were Only Up to Us, We Would Be Further Along"

Press release from the issuing company

In the "Circular Competence" interview series, the VDMA Printing and Paper Technology Association asks its member companies about their plans, solutions and challenges on the road to a circular economy. What can the industry do to minimise the ecological footprint of packaging and other printed products? 

Frankfurt - As Managing Director (CSO), Thomas Huhn heads the Paper Division of the TKM Group. Here he explains how the knife specialist from Bergisch in Germany establishes closed-loop processes and relies on development partners in the process. 

Do you use recycling and waste avoidance concepts in your own production?

Naturally. We separate production waste by type and recycle it as far as possible. One specific challenge is grinding sludge, of which around 1,300 tonnes are produced each year in our industrial knife production. Sometimes only half the weight of the blanks is left when they leave our factories sharpened. The grinding sludge therefore contains high proportions of metallic powder in addition to grinding particles and cooling lubricants. This is still cost-intensive hazardous waste. Together with a mechanical engineer and researchers from the University of Wuppertal, we have set up a project to separate the metal components in the sludge and to find recycling options for them. The recycled metal powders are heterogeneous, but about 30 per cent of them can be fed into production processes. In principle, this seems worthwhile, especially since the disposal of sludge is becoming increasingly expensive and primary raw material prices are rising.

This is still a research topic. But it shows: We are looking for practicable solutions on many levels.

What Circular Economy solutions do you offer your customers?

In a joint project with the University of Wuppertal, a specialist company for waterjet cutting and the Solingen-based knife manufacturer Güde, circular knives from our company are processed into high-quality household knives after their use in the paper industry, which are marketed as Bergische "Zirkelmesser". Our circular knives are made of high-quality steel alloys, the further use of which we would like to expand and push. The knife project shows what is possible. But we are looking for new, more energetically sensible ways to keep the knife steel in circulation. We are examining the logistical effort involved in collecting worn blades from hygiene paper manufacturers. We have designed a secure packaging especially for this purpose. In addition, we are in contact with material manufacturers to see if it is not possible to melt down the purely sorted collected blades and produce new blanks from them. That would be a truly closed material cycle. 

What does it depend on?

The discussions revolve around the number of units that will make it worthwhile, especially since logistics costs are currently exploding. It will only work if we exploit all the optimisation potential in logistics - and if our customers follow suit. They would have to store the knives temporarily until they can pick them up. Unfortunately, we have often met with little response in the past when it came to resource efficiency. Among other things, we presented a blade changing system for long knives at drupa a good 15 years ago: Instead of changing knives weighing 20 kg and almost two metres long as a whole - with all the logistical disadvantages - we had developed a system with customisable adapters with which only the sharp, three- to five-millimetre-wide part of the blade was changed. Actually, perfect for OEMs to establish an after-sales business. But the idea probably came too early. Circular economy was not yet a buzzword. If it were only up to us, we would be further along with material cycles. We have many ideas about this. We get large round knives back from a committed customer after they have been used. We reprocess them into circular knives with a smaller diameter - without any loss of quality. We are also researching the possibility of reprocessing and resharpening knives that are rarely replaced. This is at an early stage, so I don't want to go into details. But the topic is burning under our nails. Especially circular knives for tissue paper have a useful life of between three and 20 days because they are constantly resharpened in the machine. With this throughput, it is imperative to establish real material cycles, especially since steel prices are also rising. 

How does the topic affect your research and development and cooperations with your customers and their material suppliers?

It has already been mentioned several times. We are currently forging many joint projects with universities, material suppliers, machine manufacturers and customers from the paper industry in order to drive innovations forward. As we have learned, it is crucial to get to know all perspectives from the beginning before such innovations. Above all, the customers as the actual users must learn early on what advantages an innovation will bring them.

Is the demand for your Circular Competence increasing worldwide - or is this more of a regional phenomenon?

In the knife sector, awareness still varies greatly from region to region. In the USA and Asia, Circular Economy still plays a subordinate role. We see stronger demand for such solutions in Scandinavia and recently increasingly from Western Europe. In Germany, we formulate high goals and are thus always in the vanguard. I hope that we can use this to our advantage in the case of the Circular Economy when the demand for solutions picks up worldwide.

Environmental protection is often driven by regulation. Are the framework conditions for entering the Circular Economy right?

The EU and national legislators tend to want to make every process traceable down to the last dot of the i by imposing excessive documentation requirements. This ties up resources that would be better spent on research that is more open to technology. Admittedly, it is difficult to push for a circular economy across all conceivable sectors through centralised political regulation. Instead of top-down regulation, it might make more sense to set up sector-specific funding projects in which research consortia develop new circular processes with scientific support - and then communicate these possibilities widely. In this way, it would be possible to find out which goals are realistic in which areas. As a gold standard, so to speak, which could then also guide the objectives of regulation. What must be avoided at all costs are bureaucratic monsters that make life difficult for smaller businesses with thin staffing levels.

Do you have any questions? Lisa Raphaela Grübl, telephone 069 6603 1450, [email protected], will be happy to answer them.



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