Around 20 years ago, the researchers at Fraunhofer IVV were laughed at for their idea. Now this method could revolutionize recycling and thus protect the environment.
Freising - The entire industry is in turmoil. The new packaging law, which has been in force in Germany since January 2019, calls for more recyclability of packaging, but at the same time, this packaging should continue to ensure food safety. A tightrope walk.
Food and packaging manufacturers, but also recyclers, are correspondingly tense. The Fraunhofer IVV in Freising is now looking for a viable way that will not leave anyone behind. The scientists at the institute in the cathedral city not only work on new packaging designs, but have also developed a completely new recycling process that could be groundbreaking for the industry.
The new packaging law demands a lot
The new packaging law has been in force since 2019. The aim is to avoid or at least reduce the environmental impact of packaging waste. The retailers of end-user products are required to reuse or dispose of the packaging. "The principle of personal responsibility applies," explains Andrea Liebmann (58), who is responsible for the processing machines and packaging business areas at Fraunhofer IVV and primarily deals with recyclable packaging.
In the course of the new law, there is for the first time a central point at which every distributor must register. There were licensing procedures before, but they were too wide-meshed. "To date, not everyone has participated in the licensing and thus the disposal costs," reports Liebmann. “The new central packaging register, which was introduced by the federal government, takes care that the registration works and keeps track of when someone is not registered. This leads to a fair distribution of the disposal costs to the polluters. "
The new quotas are a quantum leap
The essence of the new law, however, is that the recyclability of the packaging is increased. And legislators are expecting a quantum leap from the industry: the quota should already be 59 percent and 63 percent by 2022.
But in reality you are still a long way from that, like Dr. Martin Schlummer (49), deputy head of the plastic recycling department, explains. "In Europe, recycling rates have so far been just over 30 percent." After all, Germany has already reached over 50 percent. The big but: The numbers are ultimately nicely calculated. Because the quotas are measured based on the delivery, not on the recyclate produced.
Today's recycling products are rather inferior
"We're fooling ourselves here," says Schlummer. "Because if the material PE is to be recycled from the rubbish of a yellow sack, then about 20 to 30 percent other materials are also included in the recyclate, because the sorting machines can only separate to a certain degree." That means: The actual recycling rates are lower than previously calculated.
Another problem: "Today's recycling products are rather inferior," says Schlummer. "Mostly bad ballpoint pens or outdoor materials such as flower pots are made because of problems such as smell, impurities and brittle polymers." In the future, however, "high-end products" should be made from recyclates, like the 49-year-old Scientist expresses. "In the best case, an old packaging can be used to create a new one." To get there, however, the packaging must generally become more recyclable.
Now the packaging has to be screwed on
There are several reasons why today's packaging is difficult to recycle. For example, there are materials for which there is no recycling infrastructure. "Biopolymers fail because of this," says Schlummer. "PLA, for example, is a great material, but there is no PLA recycler out there." Another problem: To protect food, packaging consists of several layers with mostly different materials. "However, such composites are difficult to recycle."
One way to improve recycling rates is to refine the packaging design. However, one quickly comes into conflict with the basic function of packaging - the protection of the food. "For decades, packaging materials have been optimized to achieve good barriers and to ensure food safety," explains Liebmann. "Now there is a new requirement: recyclability." And in turn, the many layers are disruptive. Because now, in a system that has been in use for years, a screw has to be turned, new solutions are required everywhere.
Andrea Liebmann is researching packaging that mainly consists of one material and is easier to recycle than composite packaging.
Schlummer explains it vividly: "If you ask the recycler how he would like it, he will say: Please pack everything in pure PE film. The food manufacturer will tell you that the meat then - to put it bluntly - can be kept for less than three hours. ”He would rather have more security at the price that packaging is now also oversized - by a factor of 2 or 3. On the other hand Schlummer also emphasizes: "Every spoiled piece of meat that we have to throw away has a much more negative environmental impact than the associated packaging that we burn instead of recycling it."
Liebmann reports of a fiasco that supermarkets had only recently experienced with unwrapped cucumbers. "Many get upset that things are wrapped in foil, but everyone always wants to eat cucumbers." In winter, however, they don't come from Germany, but from southern Europe - or from even further regions. Due to the long delivery routes, the unwrapped cucumbers spoil earlier than packaged goods. Tons of spoiled goods had to be thrown away.
Single substance solutions are only feasible to a limited extent
One solution to this dilemma are so-called monomaterial multi-layers. Packaging that consists of several layers, but mostly of the same material. "For example, I can glue different types of PE on top of each other and apply very thin barrier layers between them, which are in the nanometer range," explains Schlummer and names silicon oxide layers, for example. “This is basically nanoscale sand that doesn't interfere with recycling. That's how I saved the variety of materials. "
Such single substance solutions are not feasible everywhere, emphasizes Liebmann. "It has to be suitable for the food in question." They must not significantly limit the shelf life of the food and must be able to be produced on standard machines. Many question marks remain, so other solutions are needed. The Fraunhofer IVV found one.
New procedure could bring the solution
Previous processes are based on the mechanical sorting of the delivered waste as well as subsequent dismemberment and cleaning. A system that not only fails in composite systems, but which has limits from a certain particle size, and which accordingly never comes from 100 percent pure recyclate.
The method that the Fraunhofer IVV has developed over many years since the millennium could now lead to a turning point in the industry. "We are able to use a solvent to separate composites and thus obtain the desired target polymer in pure form, for example PE," reports Schlummer. The plastic-containing foreign materials that were sieved out can also be removed in the next step. In principle, the process can continue to be used up to the smallest proportion of materials. "However, at some point there is a limit where it is no longer worth it," says Schlummer. "We are satisfied when we get 60 to 80 percent of the material processed."
In the CreaSolv process, unwanted foreign materials are sorted out so that the desired packaging plastic remains as pure recyclate. Dr. Martin Schlummer has developed this method over many years of research.
The chemical liquid that is used selectively for the respective material also circulates. It does not remain in the recyclate, but can be reused. Impurities and pollutants in materials, whether printing inks, food odors or residues, can be eliminated.
The process therefore has two ends: “On the one hand, we can recycle fractions that no one has been able to process up to now. On the other hand, we remove everything that has diffused into the material during product use and that classic recycling cannot get out of. That has an incredibly good impact on quality. ”And that is important for a circular economy. "Because now I can not only use the recycled materials to make flower pots, but also think about new packaging." Together with the Fraunhofer IVV, Nivea developed shower gel bottles made of high-quality recycled plastic.
The first plants are built - also in Bavaria
The so-called CreaSolv process has already been tried and tested in practice. For example, the Fraunhofer IVV and the Unilever company have set up a plant in Indonesia that uses plastic waste to produce a high-quality recyclate that is already used today to produce new packaging. Why Indonesia? “Because the markets in Southeast Asia are becoming increasingly interesting for the industry. Consumption is growing there. "
But there is also construction in Europe. Two more plants for plastics are being built in Bavaria, one of which is scheduled to go into operation this year. An insulation plant is being built in the Netherlands, reports Schlummer. "Because we are not only using packaging technology with packaging waste, but also with building materials or electronic waste."
The idea that was once ridiculed has a revolutionary character
"20 years ago we were laughed at for our technology," recalls Schlummer. "In the meantime, technology is being taken very seriously." Will the CreaSolv process revolutionize recycling? "The global interest in technology shows us that the idea behind it is revolutionary," says Schlummer. "We have long been out of the niche of a crazy idea."
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