A line supplier’s view on circular economy

At the K show I was invited to give a presentation at the VDMA booth. What I was probably supposed to do is to tell the audience about the contributions that Krones can give in the context of circular economy.

What was expected

This task is easy – we have everything from recycling plants over preform production (thanks to acquisitions and subsidiaries like MHT and IPS), the complete beverage line up to the finished pallet. And now – since fall 2019 – also a cooperation with the sorting line specialist Stadler Anlagenbau GmbH.

More in detail, our product portfolio includes solutions for the complete value chain:

  • Krones MetaPure for recycling lines for PET bottles and other plastic materials
  • Injection moulding of preforms (MHT, IPS)
  • Bottle Development
  • Development of bottle barrier coating (Vetron)

And there is more. We have the competences to offer consulting, feasibility testing and implementation – with an eye for the big picture of our customers’ production processes.

Also, while the topic of recycling is sort of a trending topic of recent years, we already have quite some experience: our first system was installed in Bangladesh, 10 years ago.

Another example for our activities concerning sustainability is our certification program enviro, which you might already know from other blog articles by my colleague Martina Birk.

We also have initiated a cross-media information campaign for the context Plastics and CE, at first for our own employees, but now for customers and the public as well. The target is a constructive dialogue and discussion – all input can still be found online.

In short: We can offer everything that is needed for a circular economy, except for the collection systems for the post consumer packaging. But most importantly, we have the complete value chain under one roof, we can “think beyond the first cycle” for a future with high percentages of rPET. When material is used over and over again the challenges are getting bigger – and we have the view over the complete value chain and the toolbox for the challenges in our house.

What makes change happen?

So much for the part that was expected. But an even more interesting part of the story is, what is really needed for the change to more circular economy?

Why should the consumer, the whole plastics industry and all other market participants switch to a circular economy? What can be the trigger for that shift? How is more sustainability possible?

We all know the pictures of mismanaged plastic waste, lost and littered items. We all do not like it, but how can we make a change happen? What actually drives a change?

The easy way is this: something is replaced by a better thing – more convenient, more efficient, more cost effective, faster … and in this respect I mean better for the user, for the one that is making the decision. E.g. the replacement of an old smartphone by the newer and faster model or maybe the replacement of coach and horse by the car … things happen just like that, when the added value is obvious for the decision maker.

It gets more complex when changes do not immediately benefit the ones who must implement the change.

When there are technologies and systems that may benefit the society or the environment, but come with (monetary) costs for the user of these technologies without direct benefits for the user, their spread will be very limited.

Companies that offer products with good general benefits, but no obvious values for the paying individual will lose money and in the end will be eradicated. Even if everybody, also the ones who do not “participate in the change”, suffer from the environmental impact of the “cheaper” technologies.

In decision making, the individual advantage very often overweighs the common social, ecological and environmental benefit – be it due to “bad” intention, misinformation, lack of time when forming an opinion or simply lack of interest.

This is simply one variation of the “Tragedy of the commons”, the “privatization of profit and the socialization of whatever costs”.

What can often be heard is the call for the “responsibility” of the individual, of the industry as such or of the players in the market or industries.

Individual “good” decisions that are based on solid, unbiased information can make a difference, I firmly believe in that.

What they can do is, they can raise awareness and lead by good example. Yes, changes can be driven by individual engagement, but that is the small changes usually.

For a big and fundamental change in a society this will not be enough.

We must not completely rely on responsible consumers and industry or market actors when it comes to a circular economy.

Fundamental changes that are required from the social or environmental side need to be driven by a change in the boundary conditions!

For us members of the plastics industry (which is currently under high public pressure due to plastic waste problems) that means the following in my humble opinion.

We must of course emphasize the advantages of our products. We can make cost- and resource-efficient products and packages. We can for example create opportunities for higher quality and higher percentages of closed-loop-recycling.

But we must on the other hand welcome and anticipate new reasonable boundary conditions that can come from legislation and e.g. from big brand customers.

There is of course discussion necessary to make the best possible laws, rules and guidelines. But there is no question that we need laws, rules and guidelines if we want to drive a change.

No circular economy without the right set of laws, rules, incentives and penalties. (Just like I believe there’s no stopping global warming without CO2 pricing …)

Let us say “yes” and “hello” to mandatory recycling percentages, collection targets and helpful packaging specifications and let us be part of the solution!

Today we as Krones can be proud of the good and beneficial machinery that we can deliver, of the competences that the people in this company have – and of the Krones capability to think beyond the first cycle.

Krones is a competent player when it comes to the change in direction of a truly circular economy and sustainable beverage packaging.

But we all should be aware of the fact that this kind of change does not come by itself but must be guided and driven by the right boundary conditions. We should welcome this and actively take part in the discussion to make a necessary transition smooth and reasonable.