Consumers across the globe are aligning more and more on the need for a circular economy, which means all materials live within a “closed loop” system that includes a process for recovering and reusing materials. Yet according to a 2022 Circularity Gap Report, only 8.6% of the global economy is circular. The circular economy conversation is far reaching, both in its goals and impacts, especially to the plastics industry. As the demand for plastics in society continues to increase, so does the search for answers on how to sustainably use plastics in a way that allows for increased recycling opportunities.
Initially, plastics were considered technical achievements with minimal downsides. The first-ever man-made plastic made its appearance in 1862, and since then we’ve seen this material in nearly every aspect of daily life. Today, though, we’re at a point where consumers have a keen interest in what’s being done from a sustainability perspective when it comes to the production and recycling of plastics. Sustainability efforts are dictating buying trends, and understandably so. When it comes to the manufacturing of plastics, the question remains: What is the level of recyclability?
There is a need for plastics in our economy, and an equal need for the product, and its byproducts, to remain out of the natural environment. To accomplish this, better recycling technologies are needed.
Fortunately, innovative recycling technologies are helping enable the circular use of hard-to-recycle plastics. For example, Coperion recently launched a side feeder that optimizes the recycling of lightweight and high-volume fibers and flakes, which results in plastics that were once deemed non-recyclable now being considered a valuable raw material.
Plastics recycling is becoming an everyday practice
There will remain an expectation from society that manufacturers continue to advance their efforts when it comes to recycling practices and technologies. Long gone are the days of viewing plastics recycling as an exception; now, it should be considered an everyday practice so that plastics can be viewed as a renewable resource.
As someone who has spent more than two decades in the manufacturing and plastics industry, I anticipate continued pressure from consumers, nonprofit organizations, and leaders in our communities for manufacturers to continue to find, and implement, solutions for efficient, economical, and ecological recycling technologies.
Looking ahead to 2023
I truly believe plastics will continue to be indispensable in reconciling economic prosperity with sustainability efforts. Plastics have a place in our future, so it’s critical to remain focused on what can be done from an advancement standpoint. When it comes to developing, designing, manufacturing, and maintaining systems, machines, and components for plastics, sustainability efforts must be ingrained in each step.
Manufacturers alone cannot create the circular economy. To fully close the loop in the plastics industry, we need to consider the value of partnerships and how to engage the next generation in developing new recycling technologies. To better partner with our customers, Coperion is building a recycling innovation center in Niederbiegen/Weingarten, Germany, that will serve as a state-of-the-art test lab for plastics recycling applications. This innovation center will offer customers a solution for developing their products and processes to align with an innovative recycling approach.
Additionally, through a partnership with Net Impact, Coperion is challenging young innovators with a passion for sustainability to design real-world solutions that can further shape the responsible lifecycle management of plastics.
It’s part of my personal and professional mission to be a part of positive change and a positive global impact when it comes to plastics’ role in our world. For fellow leaders in the industry, it’s our job to help pave the way for manufacturers and innovators to ensure we’re delivering the best recycling technologies and solutions that allow for sustainable plastic use.
About the author
Ulrich Bartel is Senior Vice President of Hillenbrand, a global industrial company operating in more than 40 countries and employing more than 10,000 associates. Its portfolio includes Milacron Injection Molding & Extrusion, Mold-Masters, and Coperion, where he is President. Coperion provides compounding and extrusion, feeding and weighing, and bulk material handling equipment and services to the plastics industry.