If they wanted to, plastics mechanical engineers could wash their hands of the circular economy and say: "It is not our fault that plastic waste is carelessly thrown into the environment rather than being reused. We develop the machines, not the plastic products."
In fact, mechanical engineering companies have long been involved in the circular economy. They know that they can play a crucial role in the plastic being valued more highly, ultimately benefiting the environment, producers and mechanical engineering companies. That is why the plastics mechanical engineering industry welcomes the new EU Plastics Strategy. Forming the basis of a European circular economy, one of its aims is to make all plastic packaging recyclable by 2030.
Better consumer information
"Almost no-one outside the plastics industry knows that plastic production is one of the most useful ways to process crude oil," says Dr. Christoph Steger, Managing Director Sales at the injection molding machine manufacturer Engel Holding GmbH in Schwertberg, Austria, sadly. Ninety percent of the oil extracted is simply burned, he says - be it as fuel or for heat. But plastics can also be recycled multiple times, says Steger. "Last but not least, burning recovers the energy originally put in."
Production leads the way
Injection molding machine manufacturers and their customers are already leading by example, for instance by recycling metal cuttings. Plastics processing works in a similar way. "For our customers, shredded and reconditioned production cast-on sections are almost as good as top-quality goods. The excess material does not leave the company at all," explains Dr. Christoph Schumacher, Head of Marketing at the injection molding machine manufacturer Arburg GmbH & Co. KG from Lossburg in the Black Forest.
Quality is crucial
Despite this, not enough recycled material is currently being used . "Achieving consistent, reproducible quality in the recycled material is the main problem for our customers," reveals Schumacher. However, he argues that Industrie 4.0 - connected production from the supplier to the end customer - can help with this. Steger is also convinced that "if the processor knows how much pure recycled material he has available at any given time, what it costs and how much more there is, it makes it easier for him to use it."
The machines do not mind whether they are processing new or reconditioned material. "It does not even require any particular adjustments. The important thing is, the purer the recycled material, the easier it is to process it and turn it into high-quality products," says Steger.
Focus on product design
A successful circular economy also demands product designers who think along the same lines. Film packaging for food is one example. Today, such films consist of multiple layers of different plastics with different properties. This enables the creation of stable barrier layers that protect the food for longer, but it also makes the packaging extremely difficult to recycle. Composites made from single materials, such as polyolefins, could solve the problem - but it is not quite that simple. Because films and plastic parts made from recycled material that is not totally pure do not look as good, end customers often reject them. "The consumer is the crucial link in this chain," agrees Schumacher.
Global effort needed
The plastics problem can only be solved through cooperation both within and beyond Europe. Some initial steps have already been taken. China, India and Indonesia, for example, are keen to address their waste problem. This provides economic opportunities for export-oriented mechanical engineering. "Our business model aims to master the use of plastics industrially and to sell them to the world," says Schumacher. However, he continues, it is also important to raise awareness of plastic's benefits.