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Machinery makers see crucial role in circular economy

PLASTICS NEWS EUROPE

Europe's plastics machinery makers see themselves as playing a crucial role in helping reach the continent's circular economy ambitions.

During a tour at the Fakuma trade show in Germany in October, the German machinery association VDMA organized a series of conversations with machinery companies and a recycling association.

The goal, according to VDMA Managing Director Thorsten Kühmann, was to offer insights into the steps companies can take.

He interviewed Germany's "big 4" in injection molding machinery - KraussMaffei, Arburg, Sumitomo (SHI) Demag and Engel - along with peripheral equipment manufacturer Motan and the Plastics Recyclers Europe association.

Not surprisingly, common themes emerged regarding the need for cooperation throughout the industry, the use of recycled material, design for recycling and Industry 4.0.

"No one company can work alone," said Frank Stieler, CEO of KraussMaffei. "We need our technology, but we need our partners across the industry to develop the right technology, as well, in order to produce the quality of recyclate needed to produce end products."

The companies said they say themselves as enablers, building machines capable of compounding regranulate which can then be injection molded into new products.

"We must never forget the benefits plastics have brought us," said Stieler. "Eliminating plastic is not the answer, we must strive to find a circular solution."

Gerd Liebig, CEO of Japanese-German joint venture Sumitomo (SHI) Demag, argued that to solve problems of marine plastic waste and plastic pollution, international interests had to take precedence over national ones.

"Otherwise we will not be able to make progress," he said.

Executives repeatedly emphasized what they said was the need for certified recycled materials.

Right now, said Arburg executive Christoph Schumacher, there is an "awareness" trend, not an "implementation" trend.

He estimated that only five percent of Arburg's customers used recyclates in their processing operations, because of the complex interplay of ecological, economic, political and social reasons.

He urged a change in terminology: "We should stop saying raw materials and recyclates. Recyclates are raw materials. We need to show they have value. But this needs to be standardized, as OEMs need to know the quality of the material is consistent. Certified materials are essential."

His view was endorsed both by Paolo Glerean of the Plastics Recyclers Europe, who called the lack of standardization a big hurdle, and by Peter Breuer of Motan.

"There are many differences between virgin and recycled material," Breuer said. "Reprocessing affects the properties of the material, which in turn impacts every aspect of handling and processing it."

Weight issues, drying issues, logistics - recycled material must be constantly tested. It's an area, he said, that Industry 4.0 sensor technology is making easier to address, as inconsistencies in material quality are more easily "balanced out."

Sandra Füllsack, managing director of the Motan Group, added that the circular economy was an "innovation driver."

She said as more customers want to start using it - whether for economic reasons, or because they are being compelled by legislative changes or simply want to help address the plastic waste problem - collaboration will be essential.

"It is definitely an opportunity, and we propose to grasp it with both hands," she said.

Glerean also highlighted the importance of design for recycling. He mentioned that the European Commission was planning to draw up a regulation on this soon.

"For 60 years there was not a single designer who was interested in this - design for recycling was way down on the list," he said. "But in just the past few months, interest in this topic has soared, and it is currently one of the top three among this group."

A challenge he sees is lack of knowledge, so he said PRE has developed an online tool to help designers assess whether their design is recycling friendly or not.

"We also educate them about the basic choices in designing for recycling," he said.

Christoph Steger, the chief scientific officer for Engel Holding GmbH, said his company was working on a suite of Industry 4.0 modules to help plastics processors better use recycled material.

He described it as "systems that enable the potential quality issues with recycled materials to be compensated so that, at the end of the day, consistent quality levels are achieved. With machines that recognize and adjust the parameters to the material being processed, processors will be enabled to use this material for ever more advanced applications."

"Processors do not always have the right knowledge to work with regranulate," he said. "OEMs, however, are becoming increasingly interested, as they too, are confronted with the circular economy ambitions of the European Union. With them, it always comes back to how the quality of the material can be guaranteed."

VDMA's Kühmann said the European industry will expand on that at next year's K Fair in Germany, the plastics industry's largest trade show globally.

"We need standards and we need certifications, to guarantee material quality," he said. "But product design is important, as well as across the industry cooperation, which is something VDMA is strongly promoting. And next year at K, we will be showing the state of the art in the circular economy - more transparency - and some good examples of how this actually can work."

 

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