Repurposing of materials and commodities – An interview with Dr. Markus Heering

The VDMA Printing and Paper Technology Association represents around 170 European manufacturers of equipment and systems for printing and print processing, paper manufacturing and converting, and auxiliary materials and equipment. In this interview, Dr. Markus Heering, trade association managing director talks about  the kind of skills that press manufacturers are able to contribute, in order to minimise the ecological footprint of packaging and other printed products.

Let’s start with a definition: What exactly do you mean by Circular Economy?

By Circular Economy I mean that we keep all the materials we use in industry and consumption in a cycle. After use, we have to process them so that they are ready for a new use. At the moment, this only works for a few materials – such as aluminium, glass and, to some extent, paper and cardboard.

But the goal is clear: to move away from consumption towards the use of raw materials wherever possible. From today’s perspective, it is questionable whether it will be possible to recycle used materials such as printing inks or lubricants in machines. But in the case of printed substrates, whether paper, cardboard, plastics, glass, wood or metal, many of our member companies are helping their customers in a very concrete way to establish material cycles and minimise the ecological footprint of their production.

What relevance does this topic have for the member companies of your trade association?

The path to a circular economy is a major issue for the entire mechanical engineering sector. And in several dimensions: First of all, it’s about our own production. It is important to design machines and systems in such a way that the materials used in them can be completely recycled at the end of their life cycle. More relevant and usually more difficult, however, is the recycling of the materials processed on the machines, especially since this often involves completely different quantities of materials.

Because the topics of sustainability and the circular economy are gaining in importance for more and more consumers, in the media and in political debates worldwide, it is good that manufacturers of consumer goods are now very intensively concerned with the environmental impact of their products and with recycling solutions. This is where the competencies of mechanical engineering are in demand.

It must enable the industrial implementation of new recycling-friendly product designs and the processing of recyclable substrates without compromising the quality and function of the packaging. Efficient solutions from mechanical engineering are also required for recycling itself, making it an important enabler.

Is the way in which companies approach innovation changing and if so, with whom?

The path taken is changing the process chains on many levels. All those involved in the respective development and manufacturing process, i.e. product design, material development, packaging manufacturers, machine builders, consumer goods manufacturers and recyclers, need to come to the table to understand the impact of their solution approaches on all subsequent process steps. Suppliers of printing and paper technology tell us that the players in most industries are still too fragmented. Among other things, it is a matter of creating awareness for new cooperation models.

Why did you decide to put together a series of interviews about this topic?

The topic of the circular economy is not new. Discussions go back to the 1980s and a lot has happened since. But we see that the efforts are not enough. It is often impossible to return the globally growing amounts of waste to material cycles.

Composite materials in particular place high technological demands on recycling – and are therefore often thermally recycled. In the future, it must also be a matter of minimising the effort of separation and reuse through the use of single-variety materials and recycling-friendly designs. The economic effort must be justifiable so that material cycles become established worldwide.

With glass and aluminium it is already worthwhile, but with other materials there is still a lot of work ahead of us. New raw materials are often much cheaper and easier to process than recycled materials. But we want to show that many of our member companies are working intensively on solutions and have been facing the challenges of climate and environmental protection since before yesterday.

How can these efforts be meaningfully distinguished from “greenwashing”?

It’s not about planting a little tree here and there or washing one’s hands of it by buying dubious certificates. It is about establishing practicable and affordable technical solutions that enable the recycling of raw materials and materials used as well as the high-quality, defect-free processing of recycled materials.

To achieve this, machine builders are making great efforts in development and investing considerable sums of money. It is right that politicians formulate goals for resource and climate protection. But these can only be achieved if new, well thought-out industrial production processes can be established.

We make the efforts and challenges that the path to the circular economy entails transparent for our member companies. In doing so, we look at a large part of the process chain: Suppliers of pulp and paper mills, of printing, converting and finishing technology make serious contributions to resource and climate protection and contribute their circular competence to the establishment of material cycles. They have often been doing this for many years without talking about it.

Many of your member companies are active in the packaging sector. Is mechanical engineering more part of the solutions or part of the problem?

Packaging is indispensable. It enables efficient transport of goods without damage, extends the shelf life of food and provides consumers with product information, to name just a few functions. But of course packaging is also part of the current problem of growing waste volumes, for which there are completely inadequate disposal systems in many regions of the world – and which also in industrialised countries far too often ends up in the environment and is only recycled in small proportions.

But one thing is clear: both the production of sustainable packaging and its recycling will depend on efficient machines and systems. Mechanical engineering has the corresponding competences. The task now is to combine them into sustainable overall process solutions.

One can see environmental regulations as a burden or as an opportunity to focus on globally needed future solutions at an early stage. How does your industry see it?

The opportunities clearly outweigh the risks! Worldwide legislative initiatives and the trend towards sustainable investments in the financial sector show that the perspective is changing.

There is a global need for sustainable disposal and recycling systems. To truly establish a circular economy, all previous steps in the process chain must be optimised with a view to the recyclability of products and packaging. As pathetic as it may sound: the world is waiting for solutions.

In Germany and Europe, we have the advantage that all the players in the entire process chain are represented here – and can come together with comparatively little effort. This is indispensable for developing holistic solutions for the Circular Economy.

Is the policy setting the right framework for the transition to a circular economy?

It formulates long-term goals and in part also sets the right incentives. But there is certainly room for improvement at the political level. Policymakers must also be at the table when it comes to reorganising process chains and material flows. The decision-makers should understand what effects their regulatory approaches have on the various process steps and how it can be possible to promote the necessary research and development in interdisciplinary networks through targeted incentives and the establishment of interdisciplinary research programmes that are tailored to the specific needs.

It would be exciting, for example, to clarify what contributions digitalisation and the use of artificial intelligence can make in the reorganisation of material flows. We are facing enormous tasks. But if we bring all our competences together, we can solve them.