HANDELSBLATT INSIGHT INNOVATION / Handelsblatt print: Issue 161/2022 from 22.08.2022/24/XNUMX, p. XNUMX / company
How the plastic flood can disappear
The consumer industry is under pressure: consumers want less plastic and the state is threatening a plastic tax. But the introduction of innovative plastics is difficult.
Tahsin Dag likes to compare himself to Elon Musk, he even calls his factory "Gigafactory". Except that he makes yoghurt pots there and not electric cars. The 39-year-old is burning with ambition and wants to change an established industry with his company Papacks: the packaging and food industry.
You can see what that means in a hall in Cologne's industrial area. The company is researching sustainable packaging there. An employee works at a table on the prototypes of a new product: a bottle with a twist cap - made entirely of natural ingredients, completely compostable. The customer is the US beverage giant Keurig Dr. Pepper.
It all started in a garage in Cologne. In the meantime, his company, Papacks, has grown significantly. “We created a whole new industry,” says Dag.
The plastic problem as a new business opportunity
His customers are established corporations such as perfume manufacturer Coty, coffee giant Melitta or the chocolate company Tony's Chocolonely. In Thuringia, up to 1 million fiber cast parts per year run on the modern production lines in the “Gigafactory 180” run by Papacks. A "Gigafactory 2" next door will be completed next year. According to the company, Papacks has saved at least 3,5 million kilos of plastic as a result.
And that is only a fraction of the packaging market: in 2021, around 15,8 billion euros were sold with plastic packaging in Germany alone. A large part of it is used by the food industry: thin plastic films, sausage and cheese packaging, trays for fruit and vegetables.
Sustainable packaging: The plastic problem as a business opportunity
For customers, on the other hand, sustainable packaging is becoming increasingly important: around 70 percent of consumers pay attention to the environmentally friendly packaging when buying products, according to a survey by the German Packaging Institute in 2019. Almost 20 percent even completely refrain from buying products without sustainable packaging to buy.
Because plastic has become a global problem. The German Environmental Aid has calculated that around ten million tons of plastic waste end up in the sea every year. Oil and natural gas are required for production. Fossil fuels that need to be replaced in times of climate change.
In 2019, only 14 percent of all plastic waste worldwide was recycled, according to data from the Heinrich Böll Foundation. According to the Federal Environment Agency, even in Germany with its highly organized recycling system, only 46 percent of plastic waste is recycled - the rest is incinerated.
It is therefore not surprising that large food and consumer goods manufacturers are looking into compostable packaging and are working with a wide variety of companies on prototypes. But although start-ups and corporations are researching packaging made of hemp, cellulose and corn and have in some cases already made it ready for the market, it has so far only rarely been found on the shelves. "So far, compostable packaging has played a subordinate role," says Carl Dominik Klepper, Chairman of the Working Group on Packaging and the Environment, an association of food manufacturers and the recycling industry.
"All manufacturers are concerned with sustainable packaging and are open to technology," says the industry expert. However, the trend is towards the recycling of raw materials. According to data from the European Bioplastics Association, packaging made from bioplastics accounts for only around one percent of all plastic packaging.
Manufacturers like Dr. Oetker, Unilever or Coty calculate hard. The central question is: What space on the shelf can be secured at what cost? Products with a sustainable seal sell better and are displayed in better locations by supermarkets or department stores with more space.
However, it shouldn't cost too much money. The food retail trade, for example, is a highly competitive market, with discounters such as Aldi, Lidl and Penny making life difficult for traditional supermarkets. When calculating costs, every decimal place counts, expensive packaging doesn't stand a chance.
Foodstuffs in particular are a particular challenge for manufacturers: the margins are thin, the quality requirements high.
"Food packaging is the premier class of packaging," says Hannes Füting, Head of Marketing at Repaq from Börnsen in northern Germany. Whether sausage, cheese, frozen food or fresh fruit and vegetables: most products are packed in plastic.
There have long been compostable foils, but they are mainly used by small companies such as the chocolate bar manufacturer "The Nu Company". "It's very difficult for innovations to gain acceptance," says Carolina Schweig, packaging engineer and expert in sustainable packaging.
Repaq relies on cellulose films. The company offers a kit for food manufacturers. "We put together a suitable film for each customer according to their wishes and requirements," Füting explains the principle. The cellulose film can be individually printed, have different thicknesses or be coated, depending on the requirements. Repaq has the film produced individually by partners throughout Europe and the customers can then use it on the existing packaging machines.
No one in the industry talks about specific prices or cost shares: trade secrets. This also applies to the new providers: "We are competitive," says Papacks CEO Dag, for example, evasively.
Plastic tax could boost sustainable packaging
A decision by the European Union (EU) could give the young industry an upswing. Since January 2021, EU member states have had to pay a monthly plastic levy. For every kilogram of non-recycled plastic packaging waste, 80 cents are incurred. So far, Germany has paid the levy from tax revenue. According to estimates, it totaled 1,3 billion euros for the past year.
In the coalition agreement, however, the SPD, FDP and the Greens decided to pass on the costs to the manufacturers and the packaging industry. Exactly how this will be implemented has not yet been clarified. Nevertheless, the packaging costs for the food and consumer goods industry will increase as a result of the levy. It could therefore be an incentive to invest in compostable, plastic-free packaging.
The climate balance also suffers with compostable packaging
In addition, the climate balance of the supposedly more environmentally friendly packaging is not always better. After composting, only the CO2 that the plant absorbed during growth goes back into the atmosphere. But cultivation is often resource-intensive, using water and fertilizers. "It doesn't make sense to use agricultural land to grow raw materials for packaging," says Schweig. This could create competition for food production. Packaging made from biological waste is more sustainable.
Ronald Goldbach, Managing Director of the Lübeck start-up Plant Pack, shows what is possible when producing packaging from waste. In cooperation with the University of Göttingen, his company has developed a method to process corn grits. The small, light yellow grains are obtained from the processing of corn by a sister company and are not suitable for further food production. Plant Pack is now making packaging out of it.
"We are the alternative to Styrofoam," says Goldbach. The Lübeckers heat and puff the maize semolina and then press it into moulds. The result is stable and light packaging - similarly impact-resistant and heat-insulating as styrofoam.
The application potential is huge: transport packaging and product protection for washing machines, for furniture, but also for temperature-sensitive medicines, food and pet food are possible, as well as product inlays for laptops or wine bottles. Plant Pack plans to start prototype production by the end of the year. "The interest is great," says Goldbach. The certification as an industrial and home and garden compostable product is currently in progress.
Many manufacturers advertise that they are compostable. But the devil is in the detail: Even if this property is certified according to the DIN standard, in many places the packaging may not be thrown in the organic waste bin or in the garden.
The Federal Environment Agency distinguishes between industrially compostable and home and garden compostable. Because temperatures of over 60 degrees Celsius are reached in the large composting plants - this is not possible in the garden. Therefore, not all products can be composted there.
However, many municipalities and cities also prohibit the disposal of biodegradable plastics in organic waste. The reason: they have a longer composting time than fruit and vegetable residues. "The bioplastics disrupt the flow of materials," says Kim Cheng, Managing Director of the German Packaging Institute. They would therefore be sorted out and burned. "Recycling is not yet economical," adds Norbert Völl, spokesman for the Green Dot, a provider of take-back systems. For this, the quantities would have to increase significantly. “Consumers want solutions, not tasks,” criticizes Cheng.
Sustainable packaging is made from hemp or paper
Papacks boss Dag would also like to offer a simple solution. His products are not only compostable, but recyclable - in the paper cycle. While egg cartons are made from recycled paper, Dag uses new cellulose or hemp fibers. The basis of the packaging is what is known as pulp: a mixture of paper fibers and water. Dag has been researching the process for nine years.
In his factories, the mass of water and fibers fills several basins. Custom-made molds are pressed into them, and the water-fiber mixture is sucked in. The packaging is then dried and, if necessary, coated. "We want to turn research into mass production," says Dag. Advent calendars, transport packaging, food and home care products are part of the range.
In the future, however, Papacks packaging should not only be disposed of in the waste paper cycle, but ideally reused right away. In a case study with Coty, Papacks examined a loop for transport packaging. The supplier is provided with the pulp packaging, which Coty shreds after delivery. The leftovers are collected in a fiber depot and then returned to production. "These are high-quality fibers that can be used again and again," Dag explains his approach.
So far, there are hardly any recyclable bioplastics. This would be the better approach than producing biodegradable disposable products, says packaging expert Schweig. "If sustainable packaging has an additional functionality or is recyclable, it also makes financial sense," says Schweig. Then products for the mass market could emerge from innovative technologies.
Anja Holtschneider, Dusseldorf
Source Handelsblatt print: Issue 161/2022 from 22.08.2022/24/XNUMX, p. XNUMX
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