“Innovative circular economy needs political investment protection”

The circular economy has begun the transition to resource-saving and energy-efficient recycling of plastics on its own initiative. The task now is to accelerate this progress. In April 2024, the European Union agreed on a draft of a new packaging regulation, which has yet to be adopted. We asked Uwe Echteler, COO of Landbell Group, for his views – with five questions:

What is the central challenge of the circular economy?
“The circular economy is being rethought. What is currently lacking, however, is investment protection. Legally defined and EU-wide standardised requirements for packaging materials could secure the long-term use of new technologies. At EU level, there is a clear political desire to develop into a resource-saving economy. The draft for the European Packaging Directive is available and could be a significant step in this direction. Unfortunately, further steps are still required – towards legally binding regulations. At present, this means a further period without clarity about the legal framework. The revision of the national packaging law has been repeatedly promised but has not yet been realised. The requirements for product packaging regarding durability, recyclability and the proportion of secondary raw materials would be absolutely expedient. At the same time, these requirements would entail far-reaching changes in the industrial manufacture of products and their packaging. For producers who want to invest in new technologies and systems for this purpose, it is crucial that these changed conditions remain in place for as long as possible and are standardised across Europe.”

What climate-neutralising contribution is the plastics processing industry making?
“Despite the non-binding legal provisions, the first companies have started to invest in new recycling technologies and corresponding production facilities for packaging. This applies in particular to the chemical industry. A lot of money has already been channelled into the development of non-material recycling processes. These investments will not go to waste. But at the moment, such an investment is like betting on announced political measures that innovative progress towards climate-neutral processing of packaging plastics is right and wanted.
The plastics and recycling industry now urgently needs regulatory certainty. The investments that have been made must be confirmed retrospectively and the change that has begun must be accelerated. Chemical recycling is only at the beginning of a development that still has further potential. There is still a long way to go before an idea that has been proven in a chemical laboratory can be technically realised and implemented on a large industrial scale. However, I am absolutely convinced that chemically recycled plastic will be found in many food packaging and products in the near future. They harbour incredible potential for differentiation. By investing in chemical recycling, the plastics processing industry is making a significant contribution to climate neutrality and can link this to its brand.

Why will consumers accept higher prices for plastic products?
“The image of plastic will change. Recycled plastic is a sensible, good and desirable packaging material that is needed by everyone. We are also extracting primary plastic from the environment in order to recycle it. Anyone who buys a product made from fully recycled plastic is making an active contribution to conserving resources and protecting the climate. Awareness of these issues has changed in recent years. I see a parallel here with organic products. At a certain point, people were willing to spend more money on organically produced products. In the early days, there will probably be a parallel range of primary and secondary raw materials, again similar to organic products. The secondary line will be more expensive. Its consumers will make a voluntary contribution to the production of climate-friendly plastics. And I am sure that there is already a very broad section of the population that would like to have the opportunity to contribute to sustainability by choosing their products. I think that as soon as we have the opportunity to buy climate-neutral products, we will accept the prices for them. People need to be sensitised to these connections. If we succeed in making the transition by being able to buy climate-neutral products, we will spend more money and thus validate the industry. After all, the industry’s reluctance to invest so far is based precisely on this uncertainty as to whether customers will accept the new prices and products even without basic legal regulation.”

What innovative strength lies in the recycling and waste management industry?
“New recycling technologies require new ways of processing plastic waste. The waste management industry must provide technical solutions to sort and pre-treat the material in accordance with the new requirements. These innovative processing technologies are a prerequisite for being able to supply the industry with secondary raw materials for climate-neutral packaging. Creativity is required here – and is available. There are already exceptional concepts and plants that consider the requirements for climate-neutral plastics, both technologically and in terms of energy. This is a new way of thinking in the planning and implementation of processing plants. The best example of this is Source One Plastics’ sorting and recycling plant. This plant and other ideas from Source One could be realised with far greater dynamism and even more innovation if politicians were to create more opportunities. There are many promising approaches and pioneering technologies that could be in widespread use long ago. The industry is undergoing profound changes in its understanding of itself and in the efficiency of resource-saving approaches. However, the lack of dynamism in the process is hampering innovation. It needs politically created stability to drive these developments forwards more safely.”

What drives you personally to accelerate progress in the circular economy?
“I have experienced the traditional waste management industry in a non-dynamic process for more than twenty years now. At the same time, I can currently see the many opportunities – to develop innovative technologies, a massive increase in awareness of sustainability among the population and distributors and, last but not least, the political will for resource-saving legislation. This contradiction must be resolved. I see a vibrant, innovative future ahead for the circular economy, with challenging objectives. We need to proactively shape the future. As Landbell Group, we want to contribute to this.”









17. June 2024