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    Plastics and sustainability? Why this is possible – and how
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    Packages are coming in for more and more criticism nowadays – especially when they are made of plastic. This is because, no matter how valuable and important plastics are for the protection, transport and consumption of beverages and other products, the global litter problem and an increasing scarcity of natural resources are casting a serious shadow on this material’s use.

    And at Krones as well, we can’t avoid dealing with this topic. Not only because a part of our sales is produced with technology and services for PET lines, but also because we as a company have devoted ourselves to the sustainable use of resources.

    One thing is certain: there has to be a radical change in the way people treat packaging and resources – and a shift away from the wanton consumption of resources towards a closed-loop circular economy. We are firmly convinced that it is possible for PET and the other plastic materials used in packaging to have an environmentally compatible future. Why? Because we have the technologies today to make the sustainable use of these materials remarkably simple and, most importantly, profitable.

    Turn waste into new products

    In our fact check, we examine the pros and cons of plastics:

    Fact check No. 1: Plastics – why do we use them at all?

    The fact that plastics have prevailed worldwide as a packaging material is no accident. For they offer a whole range of unbeatable material properties.

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    The most important plastic for our sector continues to be PET. According to Euromonitor, in 2018 it was used to produce 573 billion packaging units for beverages.

    Light and nevertheless strong

    Although plastic packages only weigh a few grams, they are extremely stable and durable. Beverage containers made of PET, for example, have a wall thickness of just a few tenths of a millimetre. Nevertheless, they withstand a broad range of loads – during both production and transport. Whether now a single PET bottle slips out of someone's hand while screwing it open or an entire pallet slips off a forklift truck: unlike with glass bottles, both the containers themselves and their content will remain intact.

    Can be moulded into any shape

    Packaging materials like PET, PE and PP belong to the thermoplastics. They have the practical property that they melt when heated up and harden when cooled down. This means they can be moulded into virtually any shape. And not just once, but over and over again. As a result, beverage and food producers can create an extremely broad range of packages from plastics – and can mould them into any desired shape again after they have been consumed and recycled.

    Inexpensive and safe

    Packaging plastics like PET can be produced extremely efficiently. This has a positive effect not only on the production costs, but consequently also on the sales price of the finished products. At the same time, they protect sensitive goods like beverages, food and medicines against oxygen, germs and other harmful influences. This is particularly the case for packaged water. To consumers in highly developed industrialised countries, this may appear to be an unnecessary luxury. However, for the people who can't depend on either a strong infrastructure or a regional supply of drinking water or food, this can literally be a matter of life and death.

    Fact check No. 2: Plastic – waste or a valuable resource?

    Use it, throw it away and that's it? Absolutely not! High-quality plastic materials like PET can be recycled almost endlessly. The required technology is available at Krones.

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    Even non-returnable packages can serve as a valuable resource after they've been used. This particularly applies to beverage bottles. For they mostly consist of the high-quality plastic PET. When separated by type, this can be recycled virtually endlessly – with the MetaPure technology from Krones, for example.

    The technology’s long since been available – so let’s use it!

    But why then do such large quantities of plastic end up in the environment? Why isn't this resource used more? The answer is very simple: because first a suitable infrastructure is required. And exactly that is still missing in many locations.
    Nation-wide waste management that offers all households regular waste disposal: what appears to be self-evident to the inhabitants of most industrialised countries is a luxury elsewhere. According to estimates, approximately three billion people around the world have no access to controlled waste disposal – yet. For in view of the pressing problems, an increasing number of organisations and countries are working on the establishment and expansion of a regional recycling economy. The ecological advantages are not the only incentive here. For as the non-profit Ellen MacArthur Foundation emphasises, for example, a closed raw material cycle can also entail economic benefits for producers and consumers. The increasing demand for Krones’ recycling systems – especially from emerging countries – shows: the enormous potential that recycling technology demonstrates has long been recognised. Now it's a matter of putting this knowledge into practice!

    Facts and figures

    • Every year between 150,000 and 200,000 tons of PET bottles are recycled with Krones MetaPure systems.
    • The Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the value of the currently unused plastic waste is still 80 to 120 billion dollars a year.

    What happens to the waste? Almost 40 per cent of the plastic waste collected in the EU is incinerated for energy generation. This type of recycling is definitely more sustainable than dumping the waste unused at disposal sites. However, material recycling would be ideal, i.e. separated by type in closed cycles.

    Recycling of plastic waste in the EU member countries

    Fact check No. 3: The complicated matter of bio-plastics

    Even if the name suggests otherwise: the ecological balance of bio-plastic is not necessarily better than that of conventional plastic materials. 

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    The designation "bio-plastic" is not protected, and is therefore used for an extremely varied range of products. Most of them can be classified in one of two groups: in biodegradable and in bio-based plastics.

    Biodegradable plastics decompose under certain environmental conditions to water and CO2. But to produce beverage bottles, a material is required that remains durable – especially under damp conditions. This is one of the reasons why biodegradable plastics cannot be the sole solution for the worldwide waste problem. On the contrary: the EU points out in its strategy paper on the recycling economy that the designation “compostable” could even induce consumers to throw away packages carelessly – and make the environmental situation even worse.

    According to the German Federal Environmental Agency, even recycling in industrial composting plants is not the most sustainable way to dispose of plastics. As bio-plastics mainly decompose to water and CO2, they do not contribute to the formation of humus or fertiliser. The Research Services of the German Bundestag therefore find it ecologically more sensible to either use them for material recycling or at least to incinerate them for energy generation. However, in both cases conventional plastics prove to be considerably more efficient.

    Bio-based plastics are not manufactured from crude oil, but instead from renewable resources. When considered individually, that is a sustainable approach. However, when the entire life cycle is considered, then bio-based plastics often have no ecological advantages, in the judgement of the Research Services of the German Bundestag. The reason: they are often produced from food crops cultivated especially for this purpose, such as maize, potatoes or sugar cane. In addition, the cultivation is usually not organic, but instead carried out with energy-intensive methods and using polluting pesticides and fertilisers. The ecological balance is a little better for those bio-plastics produced from agricultural or forestry waste. But even these are – at least for the time being – not more sustainable than conventional plastics that are produced with energy-saving technologies and are held in a material cycle.

    … and what does that mean now?

    Bio-plastics are not per se sustainable – for two reasons:

    • There are a large number of bio-plastics, each with different properties.
    • The environmental balance of each individual plastic results from a complex interaction of individual influencing factors – some of them positive, some of them negative.

    The greatest difficulty here: to get a handle on the global waste and resources problem, a material is required that

    • meets the technical requirements of the manufacturing industry,
    • can be produced in sufficient quantities and disposed of at a reasonable cost, and
    • provides ecological advantages.

    However, none of the bio-plastics available today could completely fulfil all three requirements for beverage packages. Of course, research on this subject continues and may still reveal the ideal material. But there's no reason to just stand by waiting for that to happen. For existing materials like PET can already be produced in a resource-economical process and kept in a closed circuit today. The technologies and the know-how for a sustainable use of plastics are already there – we just have to introduce them into the world more and use them consistently.

    Worldwide production volumes

    Fact check No. 4: Conscious use instead of elimination

    Why don't we just do away with plastics? 

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    In view of the worldwide waste catastrophe, the desire for a plastic-free life is understandable – at least emotionally. However, from a rational standpoint, this will not do justice to either the plastics or the actual world we live in. For two reasons: plastics 

    • fulfil countless functions that we can no longer dispense with in our globalised and industrialised world,
    • cannot be completely replaced with alternative materials – at least not when all functional, economic and ecological advantages remain unchanged.

    However, this does not mean that the way in which we handle plastics today is always practical and correct. For even if in many application cases it is not possible to dispense with plastic: there are plenty of possibilities for employing it more efficiently, for using it more sustainably and for producing and processing it more resource-economically.

    Save packaging material with Krones

    Companies from the beverage and food industry find a whole range of solutions at Krones for both reducing their material consumption for packages and for generally designing the life-cycle of plastic products to be more sustainable. From a material-saving packaging design to low-energy container production and the recycling of used plastic materials: we give PET bottles and other packages the opportunity for a sustainable, eco-compatible life – and that not only once, but again and again.

    Compared to the same quantity of new product, during its production 1 kg of recycled PET (rPET) saves.

    Compared to the same quantity of new product, during its production 1 kg of recycled PET (rPET) saves:

    • 1.9 kg of crude oil (= 100 per cent)
    • 1.5 kg of CO2 emissions (= 69.5 per cent)

    Fact check No. 5: Plastics as climate protectors

    Plastics need not necessarily become an environmental problem. When used sensibly, they can even contribute to its solution. For when calculated over the entire life-cycle, their ecological footprint is considerably smaller than one might think – especially compared to other materials.

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    Two of the greatest advantages of plastic packages are: they can be produced energy-efficiently and consume far smaller quantities of material. A 0.5-litre glass bottle, for example, weighs an average of 170 grams. In contrast, a non-returnable PET container with the same capacity weighs just 20 grams – and is therefore 88 per cent lighter.

    The low weight of plastic containers also has a positive effect on the ecological balance of their shipping logistics. For the lighter a product is, the lower the fuel consumption is and the lower the related CO2 emissions are during its transport. The difference is even greater when one life-cycle ends and a new one begins: non-returnable PET bottles can be compressed to bales, recycled to flakes or pellets, and finally transported back to the filler as preforms. They then do not reach their final size until they are back in the filling line on site.

    Conclusion: Which package is now the most sustainable?

    The question cannot be answered in general terms. As so often, it depends on the specific application involved and its basic conditions. However, it is certain that the life-cycle of non-returnable plastic bottles can be structured so as to be sustainable. Seen from a global standpoint, the costs are even lower than with returnable containers. That's because for the latter, a complex infrastructure is required that would have to be set up from scratch in many countries – and that's very difficult to achieve, especially for structurally weak, underdeveloped regions with a high population density. 

    Killing two birds with one stone

    Recycling systems for plastics have a throughput many times higher than that of the bottle washers required for a returnable system. As they convert waste into new products, they can also make a considerable contribution towards eliminating the existing waste problem. And when consistently thought through to the end, a circulation system for non-returnable plastics could even be handled on a completely regional basis with low transport costs. For with Krones technology all process steps – from bottle production to filling to recycling – can be implemented at a single location.

    Fact check No. 6: PET bottles and health

    Especially on the internet, it can frequently be read that PET could contain plasticisers or the hormone-like chemical bisphenol A. Both reservations are unfounded, and are based on incorrect or misunderstood information.

    Plasticisers ensure that brittle plastics become pliable and elastic. As a result, they can, for example, be used for the production of cables or sports shoes. On the other hand, no plasticisers are used for PET. On the contrary: due to its material properties, PET is ideally suited for producing beverage containers. The addition of plasticisers would even impair this.

    But why is there repeatedly talk of plasticisers in PET? Because there is a group of plasticisers that are called “phthalates” in technical language – and they are often confused with a component of PET: terephthalic acid. Due to their hormone-like effect for many applications, phthalates are rightly at the focus of criticism. However, even if their names sound very similar: phthalates and terephthalic acid are two completely different substances with different properties.

    Bisphenol A, or BPA for short, is a basic substance used to manufacture polycarbonate and epoxy resins. As it can have a hormone-like effect, it has been at the focus of criticism for several years. The EU reacted to the controversial discussion by introducing a prohibition on using polycarbonate for baby bottles in 2011. On the other hand, BPA is not used for the production of PET.

    No plasticisers are used for PET.

    Fact check No. 7: A question of attitude

    Plastics are a large part of the worldwide waste problem. But they are not its cause. For when plastic ends up in the environment, this is due to us human beings alone – exactly like the responsibility for changing something about the problem.

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    The WWF estimates that of the 78 million tons of plastic packages used every year, 32 per cent end up unchecked in the environment.

    What needs to be done?

    Media and consumers increasingly express the desire to replace plastics with alternative materials. But in view of the waste problem, nothing would be gained from it: bio-plastics and other alternative materials also become a problem if they end up in the environment instead of being properly disposed of and recycled. In addition, plastics fulfil so many functions in our lives that a blanket renouncement of them would be neither practical nor feasible. As a result, it would be more urgent and above all more effective to change the way we think and act. For plastics are not in themselves dangerous – but the often much-too-short-sighted handling of them is.

    Every individual is important

    Politics, business and consumers bear equal responsibility for improving this. At Krones, we are always thinking of practicable solutions. Whether material-saving packaging designs, energy and media-efficient enviro machines or recycling systems for PET and other plastics: Our solutions are targeted at making the sustainable use of resources as simple and profitable as possible. The driving forces behind them are our employees – the many doers at Krones, who continually demonstrate how much can be achieved with optimism, drive and a healthy portion of critical thinking.
    However, if it's a matter of ensuring the future of our world, we bear the responsibility not only professionally, but also privately. For every cigarette filter flipped away, every beverage bottle lost on the road, and every package that is disposed of anywhere except in the collection of recyclables, contributes in part to the problem. And as a result, each and every one of us also has it in his/her own hands to change something about it.

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