In order for the step from resource consumption to resource utilization to succeed, overarching systemic approaches are required. Waste must be consistently collected, then sorted by type and finally returned to the respective material cycles. With the Digital Product Passport initiative, which documents all ingredients, spare parts and production-related emissions of each product, the EU is attempting to create the conditions for the longest possible useful life and for consistent recycling.
This is already working in some areas, and the more valuable a material is, the better. In Germany, for example, 90 percent of all aluminum packaging and 98 percent of all aluminum beverage cans are recycled. This not only reduces the direct environmental pollution caused by carelessly discarded waste and the environmentally damaging extraction of bauxite, but it also cuts CO2 emissions by 95 percent compared with the extraction of new aluminum.
According to the German Federal Environment Agency, recycling rates for glass and paper and cardboard are also well above 80 percent. For paper and cardboard, the latest figure was 87.7 percent. On average, paper fibers used in Europe are recycled 3.6 times before they no longer meet the quality criteria required for paper production. The industry is not satisfied with this. To further increase the recycling rate, suppliers of paper systems, print & packaging technologies, recycling solutions and research institutes are focusing on cooperation. In order to keep materials in the loop, important information about these materials and production processes must first make the rounds. Stakeholders in the value chain exchange this information, share their findings and jointly promote design guidelines for recyclable products and packaging as well as networked, digitally controlled process chains for their production in interest groups such as the paper deinking association INGEDE, the CEPI initiative 4evergreen, the folding carton association FFI, the RECYCLASS platform or also in the VDMA.
This cooperation and communication process is now producing solutions at all levels: Optimized control and regulation concepts are enabling increasing recycling shares in paper production. Metallization effects and other finishes are applied in such fine layers that they do not hinder recycling. Recycling concepts are also maturing for carrier films that remain after the transfer of such effects. Research groups are experimenting with fine bio-based coatings to increase the barrier properties of paper packaging to liquid media - and have no effect on recycling. And these are just a few examples of the cross-industry megatrend.
Stakeholders from all parts of the process chain are working together to drive the shift to recyclable materials. The goal is to optimize them from cradle to grave. It starts with the minimal environmental footprint in material production: modern pulp mills, as biorefineries, use 100 percent of the raw materials they use, generate 2.5 times more green energy than they consume, and use water in closed-loop systems. Approaches for decentralized plants that produce paper and green electricity from straw are under development. At the same time, packaging manufacturers and printers are putting their existing material base to the test. Wherever food legislation, barrier requirements and the necessary process speeds, quality aspects and cost structures permit, they are replacing difficult-to-recycle material sandwiches with fully recyclable monomaterial plastics, as well as metal, glass or paper packaging with increasing proportions of recyclates. Because this is accompanied by much more heterogeneous material properties, suppliers of print & packaging technologies and of finishing solutions are in demand. They are adapting their machines to these materials, which are usually much more difficult to process, and creating the necessary flexibility to shape, print and finish changing materials in an appealing way. In doing so, all players along the newly established process chains keep the subsequent recycling firmly in focus. After all, the goal is clear: the path to the circular economy leads via ever better closed material cycles.