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"Bottle-to-Bottle Recycling is Technically Mature"

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 - With growing success, KRONES AG is establishing material cycles in its complete lines for the beverage and food industries. PET bottles are no exception. Bottle-to-bottle recycling is catching on in many places as soon as the authorities lift existing bans. According to Martina Birk, Head of Sustainability, the successes are due to a new spirit of cooperation along the process chain.

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

Of course! We have set ourselves clear goals to avoid waste. This applies to our own production as well as to our products. The guiding principle is the optimal, if at all possible multiple use of the raw materials used. We also want to avoid downcycling. To achieve this, we separate the production waste by type and return it to the material cycle. Incidentally, our suppliers do the same. And it also applies to our plants, which are dismantled and recycled at the end of their life cycle. One of the most important instruments in climate protection is that we no longer take resources from the earth unless it is absolutely necessary. We must move towards using raw materials as often as possible - and as far as technically feasible - without downcycling. It is true that the landfill ban in Germany has led to a decrease in the amount of residual waste. But we still have a long way to go. Earth overshoot day was reached in 2022 in May. So in barely five months, we consume the amount of resources that we are entitled to for one year in terms of global sustainability.

What Circular Economy solutions do you offer your customers?

We have a large and growing range of recycling solutions. These include bottle-to-bottle recycling of PET bottles, which our customers have been able to use in closed cycles for several years - and are doing so more and more often. This goes so far that individual discounters have their own bottle colour and use these bottles in a self-contained cycle. Interestingly, there are unexpected advantages. For example, the energy required in the bottle production process decreases when the recyclates become slightly cloudy over time. But apart from such surprises, bottle-to-bottle recycling is technically mature and well on its way to becoming an industry standard. That is why we are now increasingly turning to the recycling of outer packaging. In the case of beverage cans, there are alternative paper-based carriers that we have been able to optimise with partner companies in such a way that we achieve the necessary stability for transporting the can packs with minimal material input. In contrast, outer packaging and labels for PET bottles are still mostly made of plastic film. We strive to ensure that they also retain their value when recycled and remain usable for the same purpose. In general, plastic recycling is an important topic for us. Beyond PET, there is unused potential that now needs to be tapped. However, the low-hanging fruit, where single-variety collection and recycling were comparatively uncomplicated to implement, has largely been tapped. What comes next will be more difficult at all levels: technologically, organisationally and financially. There are many unanswered questions - but the awakening is palpable and we are constantly learning.

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

Innovative solutions are created in cooperation between the players along the entire process chain. All those involved, from the manufacturers of the basic chemicals and materials, to packaging design and us, to the operators of our plants and their customers, and of course the recycling companies - we are all working ever more closely together, each contributing our accumulated know-how. We examine every process step in search of optimisation potential in order to reduce the amount of material per package and convert preform production for this purpose, to examine material alternatives, to reduce shrink temperatures of films in terms of energy savings and the list of examples could be continued for a long time now. Whereas in the past we only looked at the machine in development, today we look at the entire process chain and interact with all those involved in it. Because we all need a deep understanding of the technological possibilities and limits of all the partners involved in order to be able to plan and implement closed-loop processes sensibly. The challenges ahead can only be solved with teamwork.

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

In fact, we sold the first bottle-to-bottle recycling plant to Bangladesh in 2008. In India, the bottle-to-bottle process was banned for a long time. That changed in 2022. Now there is a mandatory quota for PET bottle recycling there. In China, this ban is still in place, but government agencies there have initiated intensive studies to assess the safety of recyclates; apparently in preparation for foodgrade recycling. Due to the recent sharp rise in raw material prices, a rethink is also taking place there and in other regions. The price increase of fossil fuels and the social debates on climate and environmental protection are driving this global change in awareness. The solutions differ in detail. The USA, for example, relies on sleeve label films made of PET, which have the same density as PET bottles, so that both can be recycled together. The EU, on the other hand, requires different materials and separate recycling. Both approaches have advantages and disadvantages. What is important is that the idea of recycling is gaining ground. It is to be hoped that functioning disposal systems will now also be established where they are still lacking.

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

In fact, we currently have the impression that the industry is a few steps ahead of the regulators. We can do more than we are allowed to and could meet higher recycling quotas in many places. In some cases, slow legislative processes and rigid rules hinder progress. There is a lack of flexibility and openness to technology. It is also clear, however, that without politics it would not work. Who else could enforce recycling quotas or even a deposit system? What is important now is that the international community agrees on a realistic CO2 price. If the costs of climate change, which we as societies have to bear anyway, are priced in, this will also have an enormous boost for the circular economy and for mechanical and plant engineering with its enabling technologies. Because then raw materials will finally be given the value they have - and for which it is worthwhile to use every feasible recycling path.

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


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