TS: How does all of this translate to Constantia’s investment strategies and R&D?
AB: I never anticipated the magnitude of the media discussion we’re having today. But actually, we already started three years ago in our R&D department by asking: what are the monomaterial solutions of tomorrow? At that time the market wasn’t very interested in that. At that time we focused maybe 50% on monomaterials, and that has risen to almost 100% in the last 12 months. We are, I would say, on the lucky side because our turnover is almost 50/50 aluminium and plastic film, and aluminium is actually a very easily recyclable material. When it is not layered with too many other barrier materials it is very easy to collect, very easy to detect, and through our suppliers of aluminium very easy to put back in the production stream. The focus here is on reducing the non-aluminium layers to ensure they stay below the thresholds for recycling. In this respect, having our own rolling mill is a helpful resource in developing new products.
On the plastics side, our focus is on polyethylene based monomaterials. Why PE? First, because it has an existing recycling stream with lots of applications; and secondly, sealability is high. PE will always work in our customers’ filling machines because it seals more easily than PP, for example. One challenge compared with PP films is that glossiness isn’t as good, more of a matte finish, but with printing technology developing in parallel perhaps we’ll reach a solution there as well.
In our labs in Germany and India we have developed a new mono PE barrier family called EcoLam, whose barrier properties come very close to multimaterial equivalents. There are three grades – EcoLam, EcoLamPlus and EcoLamHighPlus – which contain a functional barrier that combines ethylene vinyl alcohol (EVOH) and aluminium metallization, representing less than 2% of the total film weight.
This is not a solution we could retrofit to an existing machine, but rather a technology we had to build from scratch. So we invested in and recently opened a new proprietary line in India on a greenfield site. We’ve been going through tests and approvals on shelf life, logistics etc. with big brand owners in India and outside to get the product qualified. So far, I can tell you the feedback has been super positive.
Now we have this solution in India. Your next question will probably be, ‘Do you have any plans to duplicate it somewhere else?’ Yes, we do. But we really wanted to make sure that technically we have the process and performance perfectly in order before we move to Europe. So within the next three to six months, we will decide on doubling / tripling / quadrupling up that line.
TS: Design for recycling is something that a business like Constantia can address unilaterally to some degree, but you also need to ensure there's an infrastructure for collection, separation and economically viable demand for the PCR that comes out of it. Everyone agrees that collaboration across the industry is an important part of that – and I’m aware that Constantia is a member of CEFLEX. Could you comment on the progress and barriers you’re seeing in the wider effort to construct a circular economy in flexibles?
AB: I think there are two areas where we still need to fill the gaps. One is the recycling stream itself: we definitely need the public sector to help more. We've seen it in India, when Modi announced Clean India and announced recycling targets for the country, which moved the needle a lot.
We need that in other countries in the world, including Europe, and the discussion is heading in the right direction. But we now need decisions and clarity in order to really make this recycling stream an economically sustainable business. Otherwise it will not survive. And therefore, these platforms such as CEFLEX are super important in setting up the right framework.
The other area is FMCG. I believe all producers should challenge their specifications because products may be over-specified simply because it can be done. The question we should ask ourselves is whether we really need to pack, for instance, chocolate powder in a pouch which has a due date of 18–24 months. Of course, we can develop a barrier that protects chocolate power for that long but perhaps that product only stays there for six months before it’s used. How much did we over-engineer and over-specify because it was possible and it made our life easier? And how much does the consumer really need it? The more specification gets closer to reality, the easier it becomes to develop monomaterials, which by definition do not need to reach the exact same super-high properties as the multilayer products we developed in the past. As an industry, we need to compromise somewhere.