Demand For Recyclates Is Higher than Supply
For the first time, a doctoral degree in sustainability sciences is awarded in Germany: Dominik Spancken may call himself Dr. rer. sust. The Darmstadt native conducts research on recycled components; what makes his work special is its interdisciplinary nature. In an exclusive interview with FACHPACK360°, he talks about the use of recyclates and alternative packaging materials.
Mr. Spancken, you work at the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability and have received the first doctorate in Germany in the field of sustainability sciences at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. What was the topic of your thesis?
It was about replacing virgin plastics with recyclates, and I investigated it on a central component of a dishwasher. The focus was on the differences in material properties between recycled and virgin material. I wanted to find out how recyclates replace virgin plastics, and how many resources can be saved. One result was that the use of recyclates saves up to 70 percent in resources for the production of the material compared to conventional plastics.
So where do we stand today with the use of recycled material in packaging?
It’s still a niche, but awareness is growing, even among individual citizens. It has increased significantly over the past ten years. It is important to pay attention to the market-specific conditions and ratios in the recycling market. However, the rate should be increased slowly, otherwise the agile recycling market may collapse. At the moment, the annual growth rate is at around ten percent. We can increase the ratio every year, and we are on a good path. But we all have to work on it, with the big goal of creating a closed loop as soon as it is technically possible. The goods must remain in the material flow after use.
What are the difficulties in this?
Firstly, whether the grade and quality of the material are such that recycling makes sense and is feasible. Dividing and sorting the different materials from the yellow sacks or garbage cans is complex, and there is a high proportion of mixed materials. In order for recyclates to be competitive with virgin materials, the lower performance of recyclates must be compensated with a lower price. Technically, recyclates can be processed in such a way that they can achieve almost virgin material properties, but this is currently not possible in a cost-covering way due to the low market volume.
Currently, there is a high demand for recyclates, so that recyclate producers cannot meet the required quantities of bulk buyers. There is a large amount of material that is disposed of for energy, but it can be used for recycling. But still today, the cost of doing so is higher than simply using virgin materials. It is a big challenge.
Is the amount of waste enough to sustain the material streams?
Currently, about two-thirds of plastic waste is recycled for energy, and recyclates are made from the other third. Only tiny amounts of less than one percent are landfilled. There is a great need for growth; in ten years’ time, the proportion could be at around 50 percent if there is a full circular economy. But the trade must be able to adjust to this slowly.
What is the situation regarding food packaging?
For food, a very high material quality and release certificates for food contact are necessary. A lot depends on the preservation of the material; separating and using it is very demanding. To date, around ten percent of packaging is made from recyclates. An increase toward 20 percent is possible if consumers, processors, and retailers accept slight losses in color, appearance or feel. There are certificates and a deposit system for PET bottles. This would also be possible for other areas. But with deposit systems, the question is how consumers, processors, and retailers will accept them. For this, we need an interdisciplinary approach. Consumer acceptance is a lengthy process, but they are the players who can make the most difference. However, food packaging has a shorter lifespan compared to materials in cars, for example. Packaging and design change more frequently. Quick reactions to new developments are possible and then there are growth opportunities for the recycled content.
How do you assess plastic and paper packaging in comparison?
Each of the two materials has its advantages. Plastic packaging can significantly increase the shelf life of fresh food. If paper industry raw materials are extracted from sensitive areas such as rainforests, then plastic would be advantageous. For breathable packaging solutions, paper is often the better solution. A crucial question is the energy input required. With plastic, the effort for material separation is very high, but good recycled material can be achieved.
Personal details:Dominik Spancken is the first ScD of Sustainability Sciences in Germany. He achieved his doctorate at the Doctoral Center for Sustainability Sciences at Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences. In his dissertation entitled “Sustainable Development – the Use of Polypropylene Recyclates in Cyclically Loaded Structural Components”, he dealt with the broad use of recycled plastics. After his training as a locksmith and his technical baccalaureate, Spancken had graduated from Darmstadt University of Applied Sciences with an M. A. in mechanical engineering in Plastics Technology. He works as a research associate at the Fraunhofer Institute for Structural Durability and System Reliability in Darmstadt. Spancken is 41 years old, married and father of a son.