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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
Can There Be Harmony Between Plastics and Sustainability? Greiner Says Yes.

Plastics companies are key to solving our plastics problem. We spoke with Stefan Grafenhorst, Head of Sustainability at Greiner, to find out more about the path toward making plastic a sustainable material.

With plastics companies being somewhat critical players when it comes to solving our plastics problem, so it’s great to see them beginning to commit to circularity. Greiner, an Austria-based private maker of plastics and foams, is one of the latest to drive a stake in the ground on circularity in plastic. While you may not have heard of them, they make CPG packaging ranging from cups to ketchup bottles, medical devices and seat cushions for airlines, so chances are high that you’ve used one of their products.

In 2015, Greiner launched its sustainability strategy, Plastics for Life; and this year, the company issued its first sustainability report. It includes 2030 targets to introduce an internal carbon pricing system by 2020; ensure all plastic packaging manufactured is suitable for recycling, reuse or composting by 2025; eliminate superfluous packaging; and ensure that by 2025, a considerable portion of recycled material goes into its products. The company has signed onto the Ellen MacArthur Foundation‘s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment to establish a circular economy for plastic packaging.

We caught up with Stefan Grafenhorst, Greiner’s Head of Sustainability, to find out more about the path toward making plastic a sustainable material.

Greiner’s new sustainability strategy is called “Plastics for Life.” Can you explain the company vision of how plastics and sustainability go hand in hand?

Stefan Grafenhorst: Virtually no one mentions plastics and sustainability in the same breath, and this is something that we wish to change. Accordingly, our “Plastics for Life” strategy is intended to demonstrate that in fact plastics and sustainability do not represent a contradiction in terms. Indeed, we at Greiner are convinced that quite the reverse is true — and that when coupled with correct disposal, plastics can prove beneficial to the environment. This is because owing to their lightness, comparatively low-energy production and diverse applications, they help to reduce power consumption and emissions, and thus safeguard the climate. For example, the product protection offered by plastics in the foods area prolongs shelf life to such an extent that waste is prevented and the environmental burden minimized.

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However, the most important aspect of our strategy is to lend our business activities to circularity. Specifically, this means that today we are working far more closely with other companies along the value chain, because those seeking to lend their products a recyclable design must exchange ideas with the recycling industry. Moreover, those wishing to reduce environmental impact must concern themselves intensively with the eco-balance of their products. We are now cooperating with material manufacturers to a still greater extent, and discuss with our customers the options available for a reduction in environmental impact through product design. No one is capable of achieving the transition to a circular economy in isolation; therefore, the integration of the value chain and strategic partners constitutes a cornerstone of our strategy.

As a plastics manufacturer, how can Greiner make sure our use of plastics is sustainable?

SG: As a packaging manufacturer, we naturally play a truly significant role. If we do our job properly and develop sustainable packaging, this will make life somewhat easier for everyone along the value chain. We have the key to circularity in our hands; and in this connection, sustainability implies the achievement of packaging recyclability by means of optimization and further development. Part of this process involves product advances, which will lead to production and disposal that merely leave the smallest possible environmental footprint. Therefore, we test all our products with regard to their recyclability — and, should this be lacking, our developers and designers evolve new solutions. We constantly have the complete ecological perspective in view, as for us the overall environmental balance is of cardinal importance. Indeed, it constitutes our paramount guiding principle, and we can only be satisfied with our efforts when the eco-balance has been enhanced. All in all, it can be stated that the better the eco-design, the more sustainable is the use of plastic.

When should we use plastics and when should we not use them? As a company, where are you starting to not use them or use them differently?

SG: In view of the current criticism regarding plastics, it may sound somewhat grotesque, but a world without them is an illusion. In my opinion, if we now succeed in creating a functional, recycling system for plastic, it will come to represent an unrivaled sustainable material. Our benchmark is always formed by an overall ecological evaluation; if other packaging materials offer a superior life cycle assessment then, to a certain degree, this rules out the use of plastic and other materials must take precedence. Nevertheless, we as a society — and hence, every single consumer — must naturally question our conduct as consumers and ask if this is sustainable. Moreover, part of the truth is that, on occasion, we employ excessive packaging and we have a throwaway lifestyle, which presents a less than sustainable image.

How is Greiner putting circularity into practice? Specifically, how are you increasing the reusability and recyclability of your products?

SG: The concept of the circular economy undoubtedly represents the future — not only for us, but the entire packaging industry. Therefore, the design of our products is subject to daily scrutiny; and at the back of our minds, we constantly have the question, “Can this product be recycled in the country where it is to be marketed?” We wish to see our packaging reenter the economic cycle; and although this objective may seem banal, it is nonetheless challenging. Consequently, we have recently begun to employ a variety of analytical tools in order to ensure recyclability.

Only a few weeks ago, a minimum standard for recyclable design was issued in Germany; without question, this is an important step forward that will unleash an enormous amount of energy. Moreover, together with our customers, we are undertaking increasingly frequent analyses of the recyclability of our packaging. As at present a uniform European standard is lacking, we attempt to be active on a number of levels, as indicated by the prominent example of our partnership with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. In this connection, together with numerous with many other companies, we have compiled a definition of recyclability, and thus hope to contribute to an improvement.

What are some examples of how your products are now able to be reused or recycled, and who have you partnered with to extend their life?

SG: We have undertaken an obligation to ensure that by 2025 all of our packaging will be of recyclable design; and clearly, if this target is to be reached, a great deal remains to be done. We are engaged in an ongoing dialogue with our customers regarding all our products and discuss the possible form of design changes aimed at improving their recyclability. Unfortunately, a one-size-fits-all approach to guaranteeing the recycling capacity of plastic packaging does not exist; and therefore, a type of separate partnership exists for each product. However, in order to enhance the material flows in general, we have for example involved ourselves and invested in the digital watermark thematic area, which could result in a major contribution to correct sorting. In addition, both within the scope of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and on a European level, we are involved primarily in projects that focus on the employment of recyclates. Here, too, a sizable volume of work is outstanding; but nonetheless, we regard this as a major opportunity and are optimistic that we can respond to the criticism of plastics with the correct answers.