The bad image of plastics - How could things have come to such a pass?

Interview by Dr. Otto Appel with Dr. Christoph Hoffmann Director Corporate Strategy, Sustainability & Circular Economy - Flexibility is everything! Real meetings are still not possible in the pandemic’s current phase, so my long-planned meeting with Dr. Christoph Hoffman from ALPLA Group then took place as a zoom conversation. We had arranged to meet in Regensburg’s beautiful city for a themeoriented - i.e. sustainable - walk that was to end in a rustic Bavarian tavern. We wanted to exchange ideas about the image of plastics, sustainability and the challenges for the packaging industry. We missed the atmosphere of the real meeting - and the Bavarian beer - but we went into depth in terms of content as if we had actually met.

The pandemic challenges all of us - society, politics, companies. The plastics processing industry was already under fire before the outbreak, and the bad image has lost none of its strength and relevance. The development and production departments have their hands full optimizing their products’ sustainability and establishing the circular economy more and more. But the poor image of plastics also worries HR managers when it comes to training occupations. However, the pandemic is currently setting different priorities and challenging companies on an entirely new level.


How does a company like ALPLA - with numerous production sites worldwide - manage to keep the strings in hand, communicate strategies, and give direction?

CH: After a short acclimatization phase - the phrase “Please switch on your microphone, please” kept coming up - we are now very well connected virtually, and it works fine. In retrospect, it wasn’t all that dramatic. After all, we are technicians and ready to solve problems. So the main benefit of virtual platforms, communication, is there. And we also see a positive side effect: In addition to travel costs and time, we also save a lot of CO2 .


This brings us to today’s topic: We want to talk about sustainability, about the sustainability of plastics and plastic packaging. Keywords are emotions, acceptance, strategies, recycling. Issues that the entire packaging industry demands in all areas. Do you have an answer to what the problem with plastics is?

CH: A general question, and yet one of great importance. And it’s true: there is a problem with plastics. But of course, we cannot reduce it to a single point; the whole thing is very complex. Perhaps I can make it clearer - concerning the scope - as follows: We at ALPLA - and it is the same for many in the market - are having increasing problems finding young people who, for example, are interested in the profession of plastics moulder. The younger generation worries us. It’s getting harder to get good young people interested in plastics. Parents’ concern also plays a role. They are asking themselves: will the plastics technician profession still exist in five years? In truth, plastic has many advantages and will remain an essential part of our lives in the future. However, what will change is which raw materials the plastic former will work with - instead of primary raw materials, more and more secondary raw materials, i.e. recyclates, are used. This is not a direct answer to your question “What is the problem with plastics?” But it does show that the bad image is often wrong.


What causes this image and how can it be improved?

CH: I would be happy if I had a simple answer. Unfortunately, I don’t. We can think about solutions when we have analysed the situation in as many facets as possible. One thing is clear: there is no problem with plastics! It is a complicated situation, and we mainly identify three areas: Waste management systems; emotions and communication; and sustainable solutions and correct decisions.


Dr. Christoph Hoffmann: ''It’s getting harder to get good young people interested in plastics. Parents’ concern also plays a role.''


Then let’s look at each one in turn. Let’s start with waste management. Or rather the absence of waste management in many regions of our world.

CH: The ideal waste management is a well-ordered, structured system. It works better in some parts of the world than in others. Collecting and recycling PET is an excellent example of this. If a wellorganized collection system is in place, a large number of used PET bottles are available to produce new bottles from recycled PET. The basis for such systems is waste-appropriate, separate disposal. In large parts of the world, there is simply no waste management, as we all know. Then there is the individual behaviour of people. It determines what happens to products if they are considered waste or recyclable after use.


I once asked someone why he just throws away his PET bottle. The young man looked at me puzzled and said: Well because it is empty.

CH: Unfortunately, it is the case that waste is not dealt with as it should be - and in some cases, even in Europe. The following example leads us away from plastics and packaging, but it clarifies how deep that is from my point of view. We find cigarette butts everywhere: on streets, sidewalks and squares. What makes people drop them quickly and easily? It is the low value, the supposed insignificance of the little stub, inattention. The cigarette becomes the butt, and it is no longer worth anything; the smoker simply gets rid of it. Garbage gets attention when we recognize it as unpleasant. It goes through all areas: individuals, society, companies, countries and regions. In the best-case scenario, the cigarette butt can be vacuumed up by road sweepers and does no more damage. As part of marine littering, plastic bottles have a different calibre, also because of their longevity.

It is simply the sheer volume that becomes a problem at some point. It is similar to many things: traffic, air pollution etc.

CH: The problems with plastics at the end of the product life cycle have existed for a long time. Of course, it’s a complicated subject. But we can’t just let difficult issues go. Today we have littered beaches. In my opinion, these images have intensified public discussion over the past three to five years.


Has the packaging industry reacted too late to the emerging discussions?

CH: Yes, that’s how I see it. Unfortunately, we did not react early or extensively enough. I think it is imperative to get involved in the discussions and respond to them with the right arguments and measures. NGOs and society take up the waste issue - not always fact-based. Emotions are involved, myths arise. The brands, our major customers, reacted before the governments took action. Corresponding laws are being passed in Europe. A plastic tax has been introduced in the EU and is implemented differently in the European Union countries. We advocate a fairer and general tax for all packaging types depending on the environmental impact, i.e. an ecomodulation or a CO2 tax.


What myths do you mean?

CH: We have identified the following myths, among others: “Packaging is superfluous”, “Packaging wastes resources”, “Packaging made of glass or metal is ecologically better”, “Plastic packaging prevents us from achieving CO2 targets”. We dealt intensively with these myths some time ago, including how to invalidate them and have collected many facts in our brochure “The Fairy Tale of the Evil PET Bottle”.


The CO2 footprint is a good measure. In the packaging industry, CO2 reduction has long been an overarching goal to optimize and establish sustainability in the existing process chain. Is this enough?

CH: It’s true: many of the goals in the sustainability reports focus on reducing CO2. There are numerous commitments with which companies and brands go public. Plastics have great potential here, and CO2 can be saved with packaging materials such as PET. Achieving the goals and accepting the metric “CO2 footprint” will improve plastic packaging and its reputation. Companies must make their sustainable contribution along the entire packaging value chain so that the declared goals of CO2 savings become a reality.


In terms of CO2 savings, plastics do not have to fear comparison with glass or metals. If this ultimately catches on with consumers and finds acceptance, then the issues of resource conservation and waste prevention remain. What other options help to improve the tarnished image of plastics - or more precisely of plastic packaging?

Alternative materials and new business models in the field of packaging offer further options. A lot will also happen in terms of technologies and processes. In addition to mechanical recycling, there is also chemical and biological recycling. Reusable systems will also play an increasing role.


Why is mobility not so caught up in the crossfire with its impact on the environment? CO2 emissions are already being discussed, but wear and tear from tires or brakes: you hardly hear any complaints about that. Is it about lobbying?

CH: It’s the things that you see and perceive. Unfortunately, plastic packaging has become a symbol of environmental pollution among consumers. That’s because of the pictures. Our problem persists, and it’s visible. Of course, there are other pollution sources: microplastics, tires, functional underwear - we know where it comes from. Our job is to solve the problems that plastic packaging causes. In this context, it is interesting that the EU tax is called a “plastic tax”, in reality, it is a “plastic packaging tax”.


This creates facts that don’t necessarily lead to the best solutions, right?

CH: A differentiation based on facts is necessary to identify the problems in detail and then discuss them. In our industry, we often experience a lot of misunderstanding. People, for instance, confuse environmental protection with climate protection. The rumour that PET contains plasticizers is still going around is another example. Nevertheless: All these discussions help us find out which packaging is optimal for which product. To assess this, suitable measurement parameters and, when appropriate, weighting and prioritization are required. And it is essential to communicate solutions in a traceable and plausible manner for the consumer. Ideally, this leads to understanding and cooperation.


Does ALPLA have a plan?

CH: And how! We must continue to pursue our twin-track strategy and intensify our activities. Twin-track approach means: firstly, solution-oriented action and, above all, development on a technological level. “Solution” stands for Reduce, Reuse, Replace, Recycle. All this has an impact on product development. And secondly, we have to enter into even more dialogue - with NGOs, with politicians, with consumers. ALPLA’s public relations work has become much more intensive. We are also breaking new ground in the media to enable dialogue with consumers. To raise awareness, to educate. For this, we use the channels that you use: Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, other tools. We want to speak their language there and take every opportunity to spread facts. We have also entered into numerous partnerships that support our path.


Dr. Christoph Hoffmann: ''We must continue to pursue our twin-track strategy and intensify our activities.''


Does a customer who wants to fill a new product today have different expectations than ten years ago?

CH: Yes, of course. If a customer is considering designing their new packaging with us, they have already decided on plastic packaging. Today people talk about recyclability, recycled material content and CO2 reduction. It’s about mono-material, recyclingfriendly design, energy-saving, etc. Our customers - whether brands or retailers - want to come onto the market with sustainable packaging solutions.


Are there more inquiries for refill packaging and small package sizes for concentrates?

CH: Yes, that’s a trend. There are interesting, modern approaches that require special packaging solutions. We are very open here and like to get involved with new ideas. This also means that we develop or adapt to new business models. We are well prepared for these situations. Our innovation management has defined search fields. Of course, one focus is sustainability, but age-appropriate packaging or the sensible use of new materials are also on this list. We can offer specific solutions. One result from the lightweight search field is “The Simple One”: A bottle that even works without the cap and up to 60 per cent lighter than standard bottles. Another example is the further development of a reusable water bottle in a joint project with KHS. The bottle is 10g lighter than current standard bottles, and recycled material can be used.


Does ALPLA see itself as a pioneer in sustainability in the global packaging market?

CH: That is absolutely true. In the speeches on the occasion of the generation change - handover of the CEO agendas from Günther Lehner to his son Philipp - both took up the topic. Innovations were and are the backbone of ALPLA. This shows the importance ALPLA attaches to sustainable developments.


ALPLA is active worldwide and also has an overview of where recycling works. Do you have a chance, and if so, do you seize it to use your local knowledge to cooperate with governments, organizations, or push projects? Is this already leading to improvements in the world’s various regions, for example, to reduce marine littering?

CH: Your question aims probably at regions where collection and recycling are not yet well developed. Of course, we get to know what is going on in the countries on these issues. We don’t always make great strides directly, but we do find that even small changes made through our initiatives can significantly impact. It is not an easy task, through our initiatives, to achieve something. But we are on the ball and take every opportunity 


Are there any projects you can name?

CH: Mexico, for example, has long been a very important market for ALPLA. We entered into cooperation with FEMSA Coca-Cola very early on. We have created networks and infrastructure in Mexico and are going to the next level here: HDPE recycling. We already operate HDPE recycling in Spain. In Thailand, we are currently building a plant for PET and HDPE recycling with our partner PTT Global Chemical.


Shouldn’t a proactive start be the intrinsic concern of every company in the packaging industry?

CH: For ALPLA it is. And I think it has become clear how vital recycling and sustainability are in our strategy. We aim to implement our European standards in the same way around the world. We also consider ourselves a role model. In India, we are pursuing social initiatives. In any case, there is always a lot of education behind it, in terms of politics and consumers. It’s not easy and not the same everywhere, but we’re working on it.


If I summarize, then after the triumphant advance, the plastic packaging industry starts with damage control.

CH: I would rather say the industry has made progress. Plastic is and will remain an ingenious material. Certain behaviours and the lack of infrastructure have indeed resulted in problems that we take seriously. Due to all the technological possibilities, plastic is increasingly becoming a valuable material, a recyclable material whose value society recognizes.


Then the plastic packaging undergoes rehabilitation?

CH: I am convinced that plastic packaging has a future and that we have a bright future with plastic. Plastic is the ideal companion when we think of the significant challenges: population growth, habitability and management of regions, supply, climate change. These are our big future topics. And right now: How should the upcoming mass vaccinations succeed without plastic equipment and packaging?

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