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The debate is everywhere: plastic waste — one of the major sustainability issues

Who’s in control — who knows what the future holds?

Otto Appel, PETnology, Germany

If you work anywhere along the PET value chain, you’re sure to be finding yourself  in a lot of discussions these days, including outside of work, at home with your children  or over dinner with your friends. The debate is everywhere. Climate, environment, packaging, PET — it’s all about the future.

These are discussions that we need to have, and the PET packaging industry as a whole has to engage with them — at both a local and a global level. How can the industry show strength, to ensure sustainable packaging that’s produced with conviction? Who can show the way? In other words: Who knows what the future holds? In this day and age, this is an entirely justified question. In particular for the PET packaging sector, I would say. Some industry players are asking: Where is the pride we used to feel? Where are the answers, the innovations, the new, ground-breaking developments? Instead, we still hear of presentation after presentation, including by experts, filled with images of plastic bottles on beaches. And the information that all of these bottles come from just ten rivers, most of them in Asia. This is something that everyone understands by now. So the question is: Who knows what the future holds? Who’s going to get things done?

Allow me to take a broader perspective on the question of the future. We as a society have been worrying about the climate, mobility, population growth, supply security, waste management and sustainability for decades. The first study about the overexploitation of our planet’s resources was published by the Club of Rome as far back as 1972. “The Limits to Growth” received a great deal of attention and was hotly debated. Today, it seems that the importance of these key issues is reaching a wider public than before, thanks to experts, politicians, industries, associations and NGOs. Not to mention the youth protests, the Fridays for Future movement, and of course social media. Current developments might perhaps be seen as threatening, and certainly as more intense than in the past.

Some highly interesting thoughts on resource conservation can be found in Ferry Porsche’s 1978 autobiography “We at Porsche”. In the early 1970s, Porsche and his engineers were driven to act by the realisation that humanity was overexploiting its resources on all fronts and was entirely losing sight of the future, blinded by immediate success or fleeting comforts. The result was the Porsche FLA, short for “long-life automobile”, which was first presented at the International Motor Show in 1973. The idea was that the materials used should stay in use for as long as possible, and should be recycled at the end of their life. The basic idea was “design for recycling”. The car cost 30% more than conventional models. Looking back, Porsche wrote of his hope that the price would soon prove not to be too high if it allowed responsible management of raw materials. The concept of the long-life automobile was out of step with the zeitgeist. New technology was developing too fast — and nobody wanted to do without it. Nevertheless, the discussion around sustainability had started. It has only intensified since then.

 

Digital trade, local change 

Nowhere else are goods and trends as short-lived as in the fashion industry, above all in cheap fast fashion. One collection replaces another in the blink of an eye. Many people order items online to be delivered to their “private changing room” at home and then return some or all of them, free of charge, sometimes even after wearing them. This happens even with expensive designer clothes. After they are returned, the goods are sent on to new markets, for example outside of Europe, via different distribution channels. They cannot be resold on the same market in order to protect prices. Who is it that is lacking a conscience here?

The packaging industry, too, is guilty of projects that seem to do nothing more than soothe people’s conscience. There is one example that I would particularly like to mention here. The winners of this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo will receive their medals on podiums made of ocean plastic. What a way to solve the problem! Engineers remain unimpressed by this, and I doubt that it is the right way to convince consumers of the added value we gain from plastic. We should concentrate on sharing information which will allow consumers to understand the value of packaging and to develop a stance of their own rather than simply spreading and adopting unfounded opinions.

The fight against plastic waste was one of the key sustainability topics at the World Economic Forum in Davos, according to press reports. There was a general consensus that the problem of plastic in the oceans has to be tackled at the source, which is apparently — what a surprise — primarily in Asia. It is claimed that 93 percent of this waste is washed into the oceans via ten rivers... People living along those rivers should be educated about the effects of littering via targeted campaigns. The local authorities should also receive help with fishing the plastic out of the water and recycling it using modern technology. New findings? Innovative strategies?

 

Future – What‘s next?

We can talk about a future that will be shaped by technical and technological possibilities. Or we can talk about a future that will grapple with the problems which we have created and which are already casting a shadow today. At the heart of all of these considerations is the human race and our actions, our responsibility for the past and for the future.

How will people live in the future? Based on statistics, experts predict that children born today could well live to be over a hundred years old. So we’re looking at the year 2120. In other words, we are already in contact with people who will be alive 100 years in the future, assuming the statistics allow the right conclusions to be drawn, and the experts have actually drawn the right conclusions. There are many competing ideas of what the world will look like in 100 years. Some people are worried that everything is getting worse — society, supply, security, schools, the climate, etc. Technology companies, on the other hand, tend to paint a positive picture, claiming that humanity’s greatest problems will have been solved.

The reality of our future probably lies somewhere between the two extremes. Engineers might be inclined to depict this abstractly using linear and exponential curves. The gap between the two curves is the reality gap, and this is where the opportunities and risks for humanity, society, industry and our local areas lie. Who makes the decisions in this space? Whose decisions will help shape the future? The decisions of consumers, or of investors?

 

Investors and sustainability

Future-oriented financial investment has so far focused on technologies that could play an important role in the future, such as space exploration, immortality research, mobility and artificial intelligence. Sustainability has also found its place on the list of these pressing future issues. The world’s largest asset management company, BlackRock, is urging companies to become more involved in the fight against climate change. “Every government, company, and shareholder must confront climate change”, wrote CEO Larry Fink in this year’s letter to the heads of the global organisations in which BlackRock has a stake. He is expecting a “fundamental reshaping of finance”. He went on to say: “Where we feel companies and boards are not producing effective sustainability disclosures or implementing frameworks for managing these issues, we will hold board members accountable.” BlackRock is “increasingly disposed to vote against management and board directors when companies are not making sufficient progress on sustainability-related disclosures and the business practices and plans underlying them”. Larry Fink’s words carry great weight. Founded in 1988, BlackRock currently manages assets of almost seven trillion dollars (around 6.3 trillion euros). The US-based financial giant has shares in over 15,000 companies worldwide.

Major investors are increasingly requiring companies to operate sustainably, at the cost of rapid and wide-reaching reform if necessary. This shows they have understood that environmental risks can place a huge strain on balance sheets and share prices, ultimately affecting their investments. Investors are passing on the pressure that they are under from their clients and due to the prospect of ever-tighter regulations. There is a need to implement ecological standards, accept responsibility towards wider society, and ensure good governance. These targets are summed up under the acronym ESG, which stands for environmental, social and governance.

This trend may be good news for society as a whole. However, it also brings uncertainty and a lot of additional work for large conglomerates and some smaller companies which so far haven’t given sufficient consideration to all of the associated issues: resource consumption, climate protection, sustainable food production, healthy and affordable supply streams, the development of technologies for sustainable markets, and the long-term viability of their work.

BlackRock recently joined the Climate Action 100+ network, an alliance of international investors which is calling for companies to ensure greater transparency and clear climate protection goals. It is the largest alliance of international investors in the world. Between them, its members manage total assets of 41 trillion dollars. This kind of financial power is enough to make a major difference. Who knows what the future holds — who’s in control?

 

Reality gap — PET value chain?

PET technology has always been driven by the requirements of markets, converters, bottlers and brands. Our readers know all about the engineering feats that have sprung from these requirements. For many years, everything went smoothly for the PET bottle industry. This was thanks to the many discussions that paved the way for all of the innovations we have seen in packaging and machinery. Today, there is a growing sense of uncertainty, an imbalance which is worrying machine manufacturers and brands alike. Marine litter and the emotional response to this are catching up with the success that PET has enjoyed as an ecologically friendly form of packaging.

Brands create emotions, they sell through emotions. Society is changing and emotions are changing with it. Our industry is feeling the effects of this transformation, with sustainability managers rather than marketing departments now having the last word in packaging design. To me, this seems to be one answer to the question: “Who will shape the future?” The next answer will be given by investors. And sustainability is set to play an increasingly important role for them. PET bottles themselves are sustainable — but the way they are handled needs to catch up fast in many areas. There is room here for investing in the future.

At the end of his book “We at Porsche”, Ferry Porsche looks back on all the technological achievements that were made during his lifetime, in the course of a generation. He writes that the thought process behind the development of the Volkswagen Beetle had many parallels to the ideas that shaped Porsche’s long-life automobile. In his view, this was partially because the work was entrusted to dispassionate engineers rather than sales or marketing specialists. A few sentences later he concedes that too much centralised control would lead to an excess of uniformity. The future lies somewhere between the two. The vision of a global PET bottle loop is certainly worth striving for.