Tilo Quink, global head of Henkel Packaging Adhesives was due to give a talk at the ‘Life Without Packaging’ stage at interpack this year. Elisabeth Skoda caught up with him in the meantime to find out the latest view on sustainability, and how trends and global impacts such as COVID-19 this year have shed more light on the ongoing debate.

ES: In your opinion, what are the biggest challenges the packaging industry has to face in 2020?

TQ: Over the last few years, we’ve seen a negative shift in the public opinion and consumer perception of plastics in packaging. This negative reputation is challenging and misleading, as packaging plays a vital role in keeping essential items like food and medicines fresh and safe. Interestingly, the COVID-19 pandemic has made the importance of packaging clear: consumers are more hesitant to purchase food without packaging, and the demand for packaged food has been growing.

Now, more than ever, the focus must be not on banning plastic, but moving toward a circular economy. Going circular isn’t just coming from consumers, but also from governments, brand owners and retailers – and definitely from the packaging industry itself. With the perception of packaging becoming more positive in the eyes of the consumer given the current global situation, we must take this chance to meet their expectations – and our own – when it comes to sustainability. 

Working toward a circular economy means a fundamental change in how the entire value chain works together, and it means taking a critical look at how we’ve done everything up until now. From manufacturing methods, design processes, materials used and disposal solutions – it’s all being put to the test. The challenge is to rethink everything we know about packaging and how it’s made. In order to do this, we have to get the entire value chain involved and work together to identify solutions that make lasting contributions.

ES: What trends and developments do you foresee in the coming year?

TQ: It’s clear that sustainability and specifically circular economy will be driving a transformational change in the packaging industry. But there won’t be one particular breakthrough or solution – many factors need to come together to create a circular economy with packaging that is both practical and economically viable. On the one hand, sustainability and a circular economy mean a clear increase in the demand for recyclable packaging and new designs that enable recyclability and/or make use of recycled raw materials without compromising functionality. On the other hand, we need the proper infrastructure that enables the production of high-quality recyclate from both post-industrial and post-consumer waste. 

This is also leading to an increased challenging and questioning of existing packaging design choices. The main trend we see is the increased usage of mono-material designs that are designed to achieve the same or similar functionality as multi-material film structures.

Additionally, we have the challenge of using recycled materials for food contact applications, as mechanically recycled plastics and paper are not yet allowed in food contact in many cases. Chemical recycling could be the answer here, but it is still in a very early stage and is still a new technology.

ES: How can packaging become even more resource efficient? What would an ideal circular economy look like?

TQ: The first step would be to avoid the use of non-recyclable materials that serve no purpose other than making the packaging visually appealing for marketing purposes. Another important aspect is the right selection of raw materials for the right applications to minimize the environmental footprint. Modern packaging designs are the result of decades of resource optimization; it’s very unlikely that even more reductions can be made by going down this same path. Instead, we must unlock the potential of recycling, as recycled materials only have a fraction of the footprint of their virgin counterparts. 

To create a true circular economy, it is important to balance resource efficiency with recyclability. This means always having the lowest overall footprint in mind when it comes to both recyclability as well as reusability. Plastics per se are exceptional materials for protecting food and medical products, for example, and are lightweight, making them efficient to transport. It is our responsibility to find ways to recycle it properly and get this valuable material back into the stream of raw materials.

For Henkel, our approach towards circular economy is based on three pillars: compatibility, debonding and new designs that enable recycling. Compatibility means adhesives and coatings that are compatible with the recycling processes of homogeneous products. Debonding refers to adhesives that are suitable for existing and future separation processes. With new designs, we mean adhesives and coatings that enable new packaging designs such as layer reduction or enhanced functionalities. For example, our recent investment in the German start-up Saperatec – which developed an innovative, patented technology that among others allows the separation and recycling of flexible packaging that contains aluminum foil – enables us to contribute to technologies take us one step closer to a true circular economy.

ES: What role can solutions such as design for recycling, chemical recycling, reusable packaging etc. play?

TQ: Overall, according to the waste hierarchy, reuse is better than recycling and mechanical recycling is preferred over chemical recycling. Hence, one of our goals at Henkel Packaging Adhesives is to support the reuse of packaging, for example with adhesives that allow for the clean removal of labels from PET bottles. This results in a high quality of recyclate out of a mechanical recycling process that can be returned to the loop or bottles being reused in its entirety.

Whatever can’t be reused should be recycled. Our approach is to develop adhesives and coatings that improve the recyclability of flexible packaging and make it possible to use recycled content in new packaging. For example, our RE range of adhesives and coatings is designed for recycling and are suitable for both recycling and the bonding of recycled plastic films.

Compared to mechanical recycling, chemical recycling is more energy intensive and is still a new technology with a small installed base. Its potential lies in the ability to create high purity raw materials, which can be used immediately in existing applications, including sensitive areas such as food contact. This makes it potentially interesting for food contact, medical, pharmaceutical and some cosmetic applications.

However, regardless of whether we’re talking about chemical or mechanical recycling, the packaging design is what really matters. The adhesives used in packages typically only make up no more than five percent of the total weight – yet, their properties can actually make the difference when it comes to the overall recyclability of the material. At Henkel, we are doing our part as a manufacturer of adhesives and coatings for packaging to ensure that we have products that positively contribute to the recyclability of packaging and support the development of new holistic solutions that help push towards a circular economy.

We are focusing on rethinking everything: From how packages are designed, to the materials used to make them – it is time to reexamine how we work together in the value chain.

ES: you were due to give a talk at interpack, can you tell us what would the challenges of a life without packaging be?

TQ: As I mentioned before, the challenges of the pandemic make the importance of packaging very clear, not only for preserving food, but also for keeping it and the consumer safe. It is important to note that the environmental footprint of the goods contained in any type of packaging is vastly higher than the footprint of the packaging itself. Packaging strongly reduces losses in goods and therefore strongly contributes to overall sustainability. This is particularly noteworthy in these challenging times, when consumers are purchasing goods in bulk and have the expectation that packaging enables food to stay safe and fresh.  

Generally speaking, without packaging, we would see a dramatic rise in the loss of food, which not only presents a problem for regions where food is already a scarcity. If ‘food loss’ were a country, it would be the third largest originator of greenhouse gas worldwide. The right packaging with the lowest possible environmental impact of course is also responsible for ensuring safety of food and anti-counterfeiting for pharmaceutical and medical products. Without packaging, we would see a dramatic increase in unhygienic medical products and pharmaceuticals as well as counterfeit medicine.

While these positive effects have been confirmed numerous times, there is valid concern over mismanagement of packaging waste and environmental pollution. To maintain the positive contributions that packaging provides, a better way of dealing with waste needs to be found.

The circular economy is the solution, as we turn what is now considered waste into valuable raw materials. This value is what drives collection, and collection prevents pollution and increases recycling rates. We see it as our responsibility to actively facilitate a circular economy and to work together with the entire value chain to make it a reality.