Way2K: Industry interviews in the lead-up to the K 2022 trade fair “Policy provisions need to be reviewed regularly”
Interview with Achim Ebel, Vice President Sales at Herbold Meckesheim GmbH
Mr. Ebel, what role does Herbold Meckesheim envisage for itself within the plastics circular economy?
We are making an important contribution to the process flow. Our washing systems make it possible to treat plastic waste in such a way that it can be reused as a raw material. This applies to both production waste, which is comparatively easy to treat, and post-consumer waste, which is much more complex.
How does it work?
It’s a step-by-step process: first of all, the surfaces of the plastics that arrive in pressed bales are cleaned of all possible soiling. In the second step, the different plastics are separated. Finally, we produce bulk materials that are then fed into the further recycling process. Our processes are complex because many products are very poorly prepared for subsequent recycling. Consumer packagings made of plastic, for example, often have paper labels, and plastic bottles and their lids are often made of different materials. However, good recycling with convincing results is only possible if the starting material is designed to be recyclable.
Which recycler do you serve?
Herbold Meckesheim’s process technology serves both mechanical and chemical recyclers. We have the decontamination task, which means that we are the ones who produce cleaned goods from dirty products. These either go mechanically into an extruder or into an injection moulding machine, and a new product is made from them, with or without the use of virgin materials – or these bulk goods go into reactors where the material is chemically treated.
How is the market developing? Is the demand for washing plants increasing?
The demand for recycling solutions for plastics is huge in many industrialised countries. Everyone who uses plastics, who puts plastics on the market, as a product or as virgin material, is now thinking about how they can contribute to sustainability. We have a very high demand from all market participants. Of course, the demand for washing technology depends on the operators and also on the availability of input material. This in turn is related to the waste collection structure. If waste management does not work, then no recycling structure will develop. Currently, the amount of plastics entering the world’s oceans is declining, but nevertheless a global solution has yet to be found. Between 8 to 14 million tons of plastics enter the ocean each year. The biggest emitters are China, Indonesia and the Philippines. You might sarcastically say that’s only 443 kilograms per second and it’s happening elsewhere. But all oceans are connected, and we only have one world.
Have you sold any washing plants to China yet?
Not a single one yet. There are some there, but those are sub-standard compared to ours. They consume so many resources, such as energy, water and chemicals, that the principle of sustainability is reduced to a virtually negligible level. That will certainly change, but I think the first thing to do in that enormous nation is to look at reforming waste management. The US, on the other hand, is developing in an encouraging manner. In recent years, environmental awareness has come to the fore everywhere, but since this has only just started, there is still a lot of potential for development.
Will it take political provisions to kick-start the circular economy?
Quotas and legal pressure are certainly not the wrong approach. However, it is important that all requirements are regularly checked to see whether they make sense. Otherwise, they can even cause harm. In the Dual System, license fees for plastic articles were raised in order to be able to spend more on recycling. As a result, the packaging industry has developed completely new products. These now contain biological raw materials such as coconut fibre or banana peels. However, they are treated with plastic to make them perform certain functions. These products are not recycled because there are no coconut fibre take-back logistics in place. This example shows that there are still a lot of shortcomings in terms of legislation and specifications.
Will the image of plastic improve as a result of increased recycling?
That is quite possible, but the whole thing has to be communicated much better. It must be repeated that with sensible recycling, with the incorporation of recyclates into new products, we are able to use the plastic several times over. And in addition, it must be made clear that, given our type of society, we have no choice at all, as we would otherwise have to make drastic changes in our supply chains. That would then mean that the beverage supplier’s truck would again be consuming additional litres of petrol because they would be driving lots of glass around. The shelf life for fresh produce would then also be significantly shorter because the protective function of the low-weight plastic would be missing.