Green — greener — greenest Are we “green” enough for the future?

Are plastics green enough for the future? Is plastic packaging green enough for the future? Are we green enough for the future? These questions immediately raise further questions for engineers and technicians: Can this be measured? Can “green” be classified based on numbers, data and facts? Can numbers, data and results be clearly communicated?

Upon closer inspection, this provocative introductory question also conceals further questions: What does “green” actually mean? And what does it mean to “be green”? What constitutes “green enough”? What is the future? Who knows what the future holds? Who is the future? — It is an extremely emotive topic!

Young people: millennials

I work with young people at the OTH Regensburg (Regensburg University of Applied Sciences). They study mechanical engineering or production and automation technology. Through their studies they have become familiar with plastics, different plastic processing methods and the corresponding machines. From my point of view, these young people represent the future much more than I do. The door to the future is opening for these millennials  — they will shape the future (see Figure 1). So I turned to them with my questions: How do budding engineers perceive the current problems (which we, more established colleagues, like to call challenges) and the way the industry handles these problems, their solutions and their challenges? What would they do differently if it were possible right now and what would they do in the future if they had to? What mental images do they have? What comes to mind in connection with “are we green” and plastics? I would like to give an account of the central themes of this “green” discussion with young students – not a comprehensive analysis, but an indication of the mood.

Plastics everywhere

Automotive industry

I have the impression that the desire to have your own car is much less common nowadays than in the past. Thanks to digitalisation, modern transport and communication services have made the younger generation highly mobile at such a reasonable cost that owning a car is no longer a top priority. Nonetheless, the automotive industry still strongly appeals to mechanical engineering students. A consensus is quickly reached. Plastics in automotive engineering indicate lightweighting and therefore a reduction in fuel consumption and emissions – and the use of plastics is necessary for e-mobility. The achievements of engineers in recent years have been highly praised, and in this context, plastics are suddenly considered “green”. To be more precise, it would be difficult to substitute all the plastics in a car with alternative materials which demonstrate similar characteristics, are just as light or lighter and do not necessitate an increase in costs. Also, developing such materials is probably not a realistic goal.

So far so green?

The other side of the coin: What use are the positive effects that plastic use has on the environmental footprint if engineers and technicians in turn develop and use software which manipulates the measurement of emissions? Deceptive packaging — since what says “green” on the outside, is not at all “green” on the inside! Are we all deceiving ourselves?

Packaging industry

I then turned the conversation towards plastics in the packaging industry. It immediately became clear that this industry is not as “sexy”. While there certainly is a fundamental appreciation for the technical and technological challenges, this is by no means accompanied by the same fascination as with the automobile industry. But it is also clear that lightweighting plays a vital role in plastic packaging, resulting in less material use and reduced energy consumption in packaging manufacturing and transportation. Recycling and recyclability are considered important with respect to “greenness”. What about alternative recyclable materials? Everyone is talking about bioplastics and renewable raw materials; in terms of “greenness”, these products offer high hopes for the future. At the same time, young people are uneasy with the use of packaging materials which could also be food stuffs. Glass entered the conversation, and it became clear that glass packaging is held in high regard by my group of young people. “Glass is just glass — whether it’s for pickles, ketchup, beer or water. Everyone knows glass, it’s familiar — but there are so many types and varieties of plastics for all manner of applications in the packaging sector.”

So far so green?

What image do millennials have of plastic packaging and PET bottles in particular? Are they aware of the developments and progress made by the industry over the last 30 years? As readers and industry experts, you know all about the huge steps which have been made in terms of sustainability and economy; we have celebrated every milligram of material and every µm of wall thickness saved. But has word got around to the next generation of engineers? The spontaneous answers turned out to be rather sobering against this technologically-driven background. The picture that young people have is not defined by lightweighting and sustainability, but by plastic rubbish in the sea and on beaches. 

We are coming to the crux of the issue:

-Are we green? -As an industry? -As engineers? -As consumers? The topic cannot be broken down on the basis of numbers, data and facts alone, and I do not want to go into that here. The students were quick to agree that we are not “green” enough — neither as an industry, nor as engineers, nor as consumers. Everyone has a part in the existence of deceptive packaging and polluted beaches and seas. 

We can always be greener 

In my opinion, at least two goals emerge from this conversation and should be considered tasks for our industry:  On the one hand, we must ensure that current and future technological developments form a new, greener picture.  On the other hand, we must successfully improve the reputation of plastic packaging, or to use the jargon, we must ensure that the plastic packaging industry becomes “sexy” – not least because of its achievements in sustainability.

Expert opinions

I also asked these “green” questions and reported on my experience with the budding young engineers in my introductory talk at the PETnology Conference last November. In numerous subsequent conversations, many colleagues and PET specialists have confirmed these experiences and perceptions. There is a lot to do — let’s get to it.  It is clear that as engineers, we strive to develop the best possible solution in accordance with our professional ethics. All of the companies in the PET value-added chain clearly strive to continually improve the sustainability of the respective products.  Technological progress was at the fore of the PET PASSION WEEK, which consisted of the PETnology Conference followed by the PETarena at the BrauBeviale. With the previously outlined goals in mind, we all worked hard to give plastic packaging the reputation that it deserves. During these days centred on PET, the focus shifted to the following questions: Which technological and technical developments contribute to ecological sustainability, and to what extent? There are mechanical engineering, process engineering, material-specific and also logistical starting points along the entire PET value-added chain. What is the significance or relevance of these developments with regard to economy, and do they offer the right approach to more sustainable packaging? Will these new measures make PET packaging more acceptable in society and particularly with millennials, so that the decision to buy and use PET is made with conviction and without pangs of guilt? I agree with Mr de Jong in this respect, who claims: “It requires even more of a joint effort to ensure that PET packaging and plastics in general can be used without guilt.” (You can find his interesting article on page 26)

Conclusion one 

Our industry will probably never be green enough; there will always be potential to further optimize sustainability and the conservation of resources. Ultimately it all comes down to this: Being green means conserving resources. However, this does not mean the same thing for every company; the priorities vary wildly. Conserving resources ranges from energy conservation to the use of bioplastics. 

Conclusion two

Out of the many conversations at the conference it became clear that being green is only rarely a question of ideology, but mainly a question of money, of profit. A shame!?

Interim successes:
State of the art green technology

Whilst in recent years many mechanical engineers have optimised their machines to require less space and energy with a higher output capacity, the new process from the LiquiForm Group goes even further, incorporating moulding and filling into a single step and eliminating an entire machine. “With the LiquiFormTM process, we manage to simultaneously save energy, save space and substantially reduce the carbon footprint”, explained Ann O’Hara, the President (see page 92). The efforts of many companies to further reduce bottle weight and therefore also reduce raw material use can also be described as green. For this reason, different approaches to optimising the bottle base design were introduced at the conference, such as the Xtreme process from Sipa as well as both the Preblow process from Netstal and the Mint-Tec process from Creative Packaging Solutions (see page 88). Even if the driving force behind this is a reduction of the raw material costs, which of course make up the main part of the total costs of a product, the efforts nonetheless lead to the conservation of resources.  Recycling is a central theme in the “green” context. There are not only very different views on this topic, there are also different approaches. Here, too, implementation is not just a question of ideology. A comparison of the prices for recyclable material with the prices for virgin resin makes this very clear. The currently low price of raw materials in the PET industry means that the use of recyclable materials is not quite as enticing, unless, of course, the use of recyclable materials makes sense for marketing purposes, for example to impress the consumer with a product. But this is once again a question of monetary interests. On the other hand, PET-Recycling is well-established in the industry. Bottle-to-bottle recycling is hardly a topic of conversation, as the installed systems run without a hitch. Meanwhile, recyclable materials are also being integrated into the virgin resin manufacturing process. There are two types of processes. “There is the one pellet solution, in which the recyclate is integrated before pelletizing, and the one bag solution, where the recyclate is added to the virgin resin manufacturing process before the SSP” explains Andreas Christel, Director of Process Technology at Polymetrix AG in Oberbüren in Switzerland — who, as he says himself, is driven by recycling. In his opinion, recycling processes which do not recycle the PET post-consumer waste back into its original use are inadequate. “Another industry benefits from downcycling — it is not conducive to meeting goals.” Nevertheless, there is a large market for this. Paul Niedl, Head of Sales at Starlinger & Co. GmbH, Vienna, on the topic: “The staple fibre market is still the largest market for PET post-consumer waste.” Additionally, there is demand for plants to process flakes into sheet and also demand for post-consumer waste, which can then be used to produce high quality fibres for the sports clothing industry.  There was agreement among the presentations that the variable quality and quantity of the flows of recyclable materials poses problems for the whole industry.  Our suspicions were also confirmed that the willingness to be “green” or make “green” choices is all too often a question of money for consumers as well. “Whether individuals and society explore the question of waste avoidance and resource conservation is a question of mentality“, says Philippe Blonda, Marketing & Sales Director at the Belgian company Resilux N.V. in Wetteren. And the interests which do not originate from the consumers themselves or appeal to consumers for financial reasons should be regulated by political bodies. All parties to the conversation would like clearer positions and guidelines. “Our deposit system works very well, so why isn’t this extended to juice bottles and/or other hollow body packaging?”, says Volker Neubauer, Managing Director of Ettlinger Kunststoffmaschinen GmbH in Königsbrunn.  It seems that “green” oriented attitudes are always a combination of different factors that include lightweighting, recyclate and new cap solutions, just as much as individual attitudes and meaningful political guidelines. Sensible strategies for logistics, on site production and sustainable transportation solutions are also part of the overall package. There is a lot to consider, to develop and to put into action. 
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