“The fact is: the entry into the Circular Economy must succeed”

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says Matthias Klauser of Syntegon, in conversation with VDMA Printing and Paper Technology Association, while sharing their plans, solutions and challenges on the road to a circular economy.

What can the industry do to minimise the ecological footprint of packaging and other printed products?Matthias Klauser drives circular processes as a specialist for sustainable packaging solutions at SYNTEGON. Here he explains why this task is more complex than is apparent at first glance.

Q: Do you use recycling and waste avoidance concepts in your own production?

Klauser: We have clear guidelines and have long trained our employees to minimise waste, to work in an environment-friendly way and use resources as efficiently as possible. All our sites work together with regional waste disposal companies. On average, the recovery rate of SYNTEGON plants is 89 percent. In our German plants, it is well over 90 percent. We have set the goal of a recovery rate of 99 percent by 2030. To achieve this, we are also working with a Hamburg-based start-up whose solutions help us to record material flows and manage them on a data basis. In addition, our design department is driving energy-efficient, environment-friendly solutions for our customers. And we offer refurbishing packages with which even older machines can be brought up to the state-of-the-art and adapted to new materials at any time.

Q; What circular economy solutions do you offer your customers?

Klauser: The market trend is clearly towards sustainable, recycling-friendly packaging. To enable our customers to respond appropriately, we are equipping our packaging technology for two solutions in particular: Monomaterial instead of composite materials and the substitution of plastics with paper. With appropriately functionalised paper, it is also possible to package sensitive products. However, recyclability should be maintained during functionalisation. Therefore, it is important to keep additives to the paper low. For flexible packaging, we follow the CEFLEX guidelines. These stipulate the use of polyolefins (PE/PP): if possible as a monomaterial. Where the classic composite (PET/barrier layer/PE) is replaced, we have to set up new processes in order to continue to meet the speed and quality requirements in the packaging market. Among other things, this concerns the sealing systems. The different material behaviour requires, for example, more precise temperature control so that the sealing succeeds without plastic sticking to the mould. There are similar challenges with thermoforming systems when polystyrene is replaced by polyolefins or PET.

Q: What are your offerings?

Klauser: Despite the challenges, we are making good progress and now have technology for fully recyclable packaging in our portfolio: This ranges from monomaterial coffee bags to thermoformed paper trays for food or toothbrushes to blister packaging for paper-based tablets. End consumers are more likely to recognise paper as environment-friendly than monomaterial plastics. As a result, many an eco-balance advantage that lighter, recyclable plastics offer is lost from view. Composites also have advantages: due to their specific barrier properties against water and oxygen, their material layers are often thinner, which saves material and weight. We are working on maintaining the advantages and optimising recyclability. We are getting better at finding sensible compromises between packaging function, producibility, logistics and recycling.

Q: How does the topic affect your research and development as well as co-operations with your customers and their material suppliers?

Klauser: The packaging industry is in a transitional phase between discovery and implementation. Material manufacturers are intensively researching solutions that are easy to process and recycle, while meeting all legal requirements for food and pharmaceutical packaging. We work closely together in the search for future-proof solutions. We offer packaging material manufacturers the opportunity to test new solutions on our machines.

Packaging manufacturers and brand owners are often also involved. In order to switch to new solutions, they have to stand up in the industrial process from day one. For this reason, we as machine manufacturers are getting involved earlier and earlier in R&D projects and conversion processes. And we are particularly on hand to advise smaller producers when it comes to introducing sustainable packaging solutions. We have the experience, have our finger on the pulse and can assess what works and where pitfalls lurk. Thanks to our close cooperation, we ourselves can assess earlier which trends have a future.

Q: Is the demand for your Circular Competence increasing worldwide?

Klauser: In fact, demand is increasing worldwide, but it is still strongest in Europe. There are also differences from industry to industry. While global retail chains and food suppliers now place a lot of emphasis on sustainable packaging and are pushing ahead with changes that they are rolling out globally, the pharmaceutical industry, for example, is more reserved. Here, the focus is on packaging medicines safely and in compliance with the law. But the topic of sustainability is increasingly moving up the agenda here as well.

Q: Environmental protection is often driven by regulation. Are the framework conditions for entering the Circular Economy, right?

Klauser: Whatever legislators think about, they must not lose sight of the planning security for those who implement it in the end. Coherent cost-benefit analyses are needed before ideas for improvement find their way into the regulatory framework. For companies, there are low-hanging fruits in the Circular Economy that can be implemented with little effort and achieve visible results. And there are technically complex, expensive measures that are hardly visible and have yet to prove their actual benefits. At the same time, a lot of research is currently underway, which is driving the innovation dynamic in the packaging market. We are therefore making our plants future-proof and designing them to be able to process a wide variety of material types reliably. For outsiders, switching to new materials may sound simple. But they are highly complex and often associated with high start-up costs. In addition, there are sometimes contradictory objectives from the legislative side. For example, CO2 reduction and plastic waste avoidance are often in conflict with each other. The fact is: the entry into the Circular Economy must succeed, but the deeper you go, the more complicated it becomes. If, for example, plastics are separated according to type, this still does not tell us what they came into contact with during their previous use and to what extent there is a risk of contamination when new products are packaged in them. Chemical recycling would probably offer advantages here, but this is a new technology that is difficult to introduce. Ultimately, intensive analyses are also needed on the legislative side in order to be able to set a practicable framework. This must keep a future open for packaging that protects food from spoilage, ensures the safety of medication and enables efficient logistics processes without transport damage. Those who think too short-sightedly here will be at a great disadvantage in the overall balance.

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