EU Bans Have an Impact on Mechanical Engineering
Sustainability is driving manufacturers of consumer goods worldwide. This also affects the packaging industry. The German mechanical engineering sector is helping to reduce emissions and avoid food and packaging waste. In the view of the VDMA, the draft of the new EU Packaging Regulation offers many opportunities in this regard, but also some risks.
Many companies in the consumer goods industry, and especially in the food industry, have already been setting sustainability goals for several years. "Globally, the topic is gaining importance in all regions of the world," says Richard Clemens, Managing Director of the VDMA Food Processing and Packaging Machinery Association. There are many statistics on this, Clemens points to the one from the market research company Euromonitor International from 2022. The tenor: consumers are increasingly including sustainability criteria in their consumption decisions. According to Euromonitor, a growing awareness of sustainable packaging is most pronounced when it comes to plastic. At the same time, consumers also recognize the high importance of plastics for food safety.
Considering that around 64 percent of consumer packaging is made of plastic and that the proportion is forecast to rise by three percent worldwide by 2026, reducing plastic waste is an important goal, Clemens stresses. The topic of recycling also needs to be pushed all the more, he adds. The VDMA supports the goals of the new EU Packaging Regulation in principle. "This is because it will be valid for all EU members immediately after it comes into force. It will thus replace the current patchwork of specific packaging regulations in the EU member states," says Clemens.
By way of background, the new regulation aims to reduce the consumption of primary raw materials and increase the proportion of recycled plastics in packaging. This also applies to food packaging. In these, the recycled content is to be 10 percent from 2030 and increase to 50 percent from 2040. "And that's where we have a stomachache in terms of implementation. We take a very critical view of the mandatory use of recyclates in food packaging, because this packaging has a protective function for human health. Issues such as possible contamination, food safety and hygiene must definitely be taken into account here," stresses Clemens.
He also criticizes the fact that for plastic food packaging that is not made of PET, there is currently no recycling process evaluated by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and thus approved by the EU that ensures health protection when recycled plastics are used in new packaging. "Here, we see considerable need for action and, above all, investment in order to be able to realize the goals of the minimum recycled content in food packaging."
Chemical recycling as a solution?
According to Clemens, the biggest challenge in recycling is posed by multilayer films. In order to be able to return this material to the cycle in the best possible way in the future, the established recycling process needs to be expanded. From the mechanical engineers' point of view, this involves chemical recycling, as this involves breaking down plastic into its basic chemical building blocks.
According to Clemens, the greatest challenge in recycling is posed by multilayer films. In order to be able to return this material to the cycle in the best possible way in the future, the established recycling process must be expanded. From the point of view of the mechanical engineers, chemical recycling is the best way to do this, as it involves breaking down plastic into its basic chemical building blocks. "However, this useful addition is not yet recognized under the EU Waste Framework Directive."
The trade association managing director sees a further problem in the selective banning of packaging types and formats, for example for fruit and vegetable packaging and for disposable packaging used in hotels or catering. "These bans impact all links in the value chain, including mechanical engineering. Business models established over decades would face extinction as a result of blanket bans. In our view, this needs to be improved," Clemens demanded. The VDMA submitted these and other arguments to the Commission in March 2023 in the form of a VDMA position paper. Many machine builders produce such miniature packaging, Clemens said. VDMA board member Michael Trauwein (CEO Multivac) also voiced similar criticism of the regulation. He reported on a French customer who had asked which machines he should buy in the future if it was not clear what the EU packaging regulation would ultimately mean for him. "The fussing around by politicians is an obstacle for us."
At the same time, the mechanical engineering sector certainly offers solutions and can be included in the discussion, according to the VDMA's tenor. Companies in the food and packaging machinery sectors offer technologies for the transformation processes on the way to greater sustainability in consumption, it said. In process technology, the main focus is on reducing the use of energy and water in food production and on optimal raw material utilization. Packaging machinery manufacturers support their customers in implementing their sustainability strategies through innovative packaging concepts in the sense of "design-for-recycling". An important focus here is on reducing the materials used and increasing the use of monomaterials instead of multilayer composites. Fiber-based packaging materials are also increasingly being used if the products to be packaged permit this in terms of product safety and shelf life. Research is being conducted into bio-based packaging solutions.
"Companies in the packaging machinery sector have succeeded in recent years in enabling the implementation of sustainable packaging concepts through appropriate technical adaptations and newly developed machine solutions," says Clemens. The expert lists specific examples:
- Structured data analysis reduces production interruptions and thus leads to less waste.
- Live measured values on resource consumption and film consumption increase efficiency and sustainability.
- Deep Learning solutions reduce the number of incorrectly rejected products.
- Sensor-based for MAP packaging avoids random sampling and rejects.
- Flexible machine concepts for easy changeover between paper and monoplastics through exchangeable sealing units.
- New sealing methods for heat-sensitive products such as chocolate enable packaging with monomaterials.
- Replacement of secondary plastic packaging for beverage containers with adhesive dots or cardboard clips.
- Retrofit: 20-year-old lines with new control and drive technology reduce power consumption by 30 percent.
- Alternative materials: folding boxes based on grass paper or coffee cups made of wafer dough, which is heat-resistant due to an edible coating and remains stable and can be consumed until the last sip.