In the context of the ongoing debate about plastics packaging and sustainability, Elisabeth Skoda discusses recycling and recyclate goals and challenges, bioplastics, consumer behaviour and much more with Dr Isabell Schmidt, the managing director at IK, the German plastic packaging industry association.

ES: The European strategy for plastics has set a target to use 10 million tonnes of recycled plastics in the EU by 2025. This includes all plastic, not just packaging. In this context, IK has set the target to use 1 million tonnes of recyclate in plastic packaging by 2025. How far along is IK in this goal?

IS: Yes, 1 million tonnes of recyclates by 2025 is an ambitious target, starting from 400,000 tonnes in 2017. This is pretty much in line with the European Commission’s goal to use 10 million tonnes of recyclates in plastic products so it comes to approximately 22 per cent of the production volume. This year we have monitored our progress and the amount of recycled materials used has increased by 75,000 tonnes. At the same time, the use of virgin plastic material has decreased by about 2% so that’s a remarkable reversal of trends.


ES: What are the particular challenges when it comes to meeting IK’s 2025 targets, e.g. for the food industry and also non-food industries. What innovations have you observed to tackle these?

IS: Clearly, we still have to triple the amount of post-consumer recyclates. Large parts of the plastic packaging market are for sensitive goods: around 44% is food packaging but also cosmetics, pharmaceuticals, dangerous goods etc. For those goods we can only use raw materials of very high purity grades which makes it very challenging to use recyclates. One solution is to use barriers: silicon oxide can be used as a barrier so the food is not in direct contact with the recyclate. Otherwise, recyclate coming from PET beverage bottles can be used in direct contact with food.

As for the other markets where it’s easier to use recyclates, the main obstacles are still the supply of large enough quantities and also of consistent quality for processing. Very high quality recyclates are still scarce and converters have to deal with machines running slower as well as impaired aesthetics like lack of transparency. But we are seeing a lot of innovation in packaging design with regard to better recyclability and increased recycled content. For example, we have multilayer packaging that is designed in a way that allows for recycling of all layers all together. We see juice bottles using silicon oxide instead of polyamide as a barrier against oxygen. We see paint buckets and bottles for household cleaners with high content of recycled materials that remain attractive for end users. However, these innovations are not always successful on the market because they often cost more.

Another barrier is on the customer side: there is still a certain lack of acceptance, for example because of the greyish colour of most recyclates compared to virgin. Last but not least, recyclates have to be come more competitive in relation to virgin plastics.

ES: So you haven’t observed a bigger uptake from consumers in view of the recent plastic debate? Do you think consumers often say they want one thing but actually what they buy is different?

IS: At the moment what sells best is the claim of less plastics and this is hampering recyclability because we are seeing an increase of paper based laminate. This is not recyclable but it is advertised with the claim that it uses up to 80% less plastics so that makes it more difficult to advertise packaging that uses recyclates. This is something that brand owners need to work on. After all, our members are the producers of packaging and they sell to brand owners whose job it then is to advertise this packaging on the market in the correct way.

ES: You mentioned that virgin plastics are also very cheap and that is a problem for the recyclates market. What steps would you say can be taken to counterbalance this?

IS: We need to increase economies of scale and profitability in the recycling market. So for example we need harmonization and design for recycling. In many EU member states we also still need separate collection for recycling and to phase out landfill much quicker than the Commission is aiming for. Finally, we need financial incentives for the use of recyclates. All this can really help to foster investment in the whole supply chain.


ES: What measures does the German plastic packaging industry take to boost the collection of high value recyclate as well as increase the recyclate share in plastics?

IS: We follow a twofold strategy: better design of recycled plastic packaging and also better cooperation with the supply chain. The core competence of the packaging manufacturers is really the development of new packaging design with the aim of a) of better recyclability and b) higher uptake of recycled materials. IK has joined the Circular Plastics Alliance in order to work with the whole supply chain. We are also engaged in responsible lobbying with the aim of increasing separate collection. We strive for harmonization and also support EPR schemes. What we are clearly against is national plastic taxes that are currently being introduced by some member states like Italy, Spain and the UK. This is hindering investment in the circular economy because it’s disrupting the single market in the EU. Most of all, reliable framework conditions are needed to stimulate investment.

ES: On that note, what are your thoughts on the EU Plastic Pact and its goals?

IS: This is an initiative in which governments and private companies work together to achieve certain targets around recyclability, use of recycled content and also plastic packaging reduction. In principle we welcome it when organizations set ambitious voluntary targets but I must say that plastic reduction targets are moving things in the wrong direction. Materials savings are happening naturally on the market driven by technological progress and by cost savings. Raw material prices are the greatest cost driver in the production of packaging and since the 1990s we have observed an average weight decrease of 25%. Now, if we have reduction targets that go beyond this we risk running counter to recyclability and could encourage the increase of non-recyclable laminated paper packaging.

Furthermore, the Plastic Pact targets might be feasible for some companies but not for the plastics packaging market as a whole. I’m talking here about the target of 30% recycled content by 2025. That is not realistic for the whole market and it is raising false expectation. This is why we made the decision not to sign the Plastics Pact.

ES: On a slightly different note, what is your stance on bioplastics in the wider sense of the word?

IS: First, we have to distinguish between biobased plastics and biodegradable plastics as they are not the same. We have standard polymers like polyethylene that is made from plants instead of crude oil but still not biodegradable in nature – so-called ‘drop-in’ solutions. They can make sense because they can be recycled together with packaging waste but clearly we have to watch carefully how these plant-based feedstocks are grown because then there can be conflicts around land-use and so on.

When it comes to biodegradable plastics, they do not make sense in terms of recycling because they actively hinder it. They might, however, make sense in very specific applications such as agricultural films where it is actually of real benefit to incorporate biodegradation.

ES: How has the Covid-19 pandemic influenced attitudes towards plastic packaging and what role have plastics played to help fight the pandemic?

IS: The functions of the packaging are coming back into consciousness: first and foremost the role of packaging as a hygienic protector of food but also, for example, for pharmaceutical supply chain security. In modern supply chains plastic packaging is essential for the protection of food, medicines and other sensitive goods. This does not mean that criticism of packaging – particularly plastics – has completely disappeared but the benefits of packaging are definitely being seen again. During the pandemic there has of course been enormous demand for plastics for products such as hand-sanitisers, to give just one example.

ES: What has the general impact of the Covid-19 pandemic been on your members?

IS: Some struggled, some benefited. Some manufacturers of system relevant packaging for food and pharma etc. actually reached capacity limits while others, such as suppliers to the automotive industry and restaurants were confronted with a significant slump in demand. But our members in the industrial sector are now reporting a recovery.

ES: Has there been a greater focus on CO2 emissions when it comes to the plastic packaging debate as the climate crisis comes increasingly to the forefront?

IS: I would certainly appreciate if it was given greater attention than plastics. Of course, no packaging materials is CO2-neutral but packaging helps to reduce the carbon footprint of the packaged products by avoiding spoilage. If CO2 reduction was used as a market-based legal instrument it would create fair competition on the market for low carbon solutions.

ES: Finally, playing Devil’s Advocate for a moment, what would you say of the criticism that plastic packaging can be an enabler of unsustainable consumption for the sake of convenience?

IS: It’s true there are still many applications where the use of plastics is unnecessary, but first and foremost when used correctly plastic packaging is an enabler of sustainable consumption because it protects products from spoilage.

As to whether an individual product is needed, there is no general answer to that question. Do we need pre-cut salad, for instance? Ask that question to someone who lacks time because he or she has to juggle work and childcare and many other things besides. For many, convenience means saving time and it’s difficult to judge people who are using products for this reason. We have to be realistic and accept that lifestyles will not change and environmental impacts will not become any lower if, for example, we substitute plastics with aluminium or coated paper. Instead, we need better collection and recycling of packaging, especially in public spaces, and plastic can be a great solution because it can also facilitate reuse models such as on-the-go consumption and home delivery.

This interview was originally published as a podcast. You can listen to the episode here: