‘The plastics sector thrives on success stories and track records’

‘A better environment begins with oneself’. This slogan by Postbus 51, the Dutch government’s former public information service, dates from as far back as 1991, and thirty years later still is just as applicable. Plastics nowadays do not have the best image, but that is not justified, believes Margie Topp, lecturer Plastics Technology at the University of Applied Sciences in Windesheim, the Netherlands. Because it is not the product that’s at fault, but how we deal with it.

According to Topp, plastic’s bad image has everything to do with the news coverage of the ‘plastic soup’. “But that soup has come about because consumers simply dump plastic anywhere. For example, in Asia the culture that prevails there is that everything that has no value is simply thrown into the river. As soon as you lack a proper waste processing infrastructure, you end up with such problems. We have to look at ourselves, rather than the plastic.”

Topp often compares the plastics situation with the internet. “There are many people who use the internet for wrong ends. This is clearly of their own doing, not that of the internet.” It is difficult to make this distinction when it comes to plastics. “I find this very peculiar. And also unjustified. As I always like to say, everyone uses plastic. Plastic also is an integral part of the lives of people who reject plastics. After all, there’s plastic in just about everything.”

 

Make it recyclable

With her research team, Topp conducts innovative research pertaining to sustainable production and the circular economy with and for the business community. The team works on plastics technology on the basis of four disciplines (mechanical engineering, electrical engineering, civil engineering and industrial design). For example, they have developed a comprehensive programme for recycling old composite materials, such as boats and windmills. “These are issues born out of necessity; in this case: what should we do with old boats and windmills? We then make this into a project.”

In addition, they work with start-ups in the plastics industry through means of their own Green PAC (Polymer Application Centre) iLab incubator organisation. Between 20 to 25 start-ups are now actively involved in this organisation. “It is a very dynamic club with young people with crazy ideas. As long as they are involved with plastics, elastomers or composites, they are welcome in our incubator.”

The lecturer has visited AFP with her students on several occasions in the past. “AFP is a unique company with unique facilities,” she explains. “For example, if you want people to see film blowing in action, this is the perfect spot. You can show them a great deal of state-of-the-art equipment here.”

The circular economy and recyclables are not only attracting the full attention of consumers, the chemical industry and companies are also devoting a great deal of attention to these areas. This is in part due to the standard established by the EU designed to reduce the use of throwaway plastics: by 2030 all packaging materials must be recyclable. A lofty goal, but, says Topp: “surprisingly little recyclates are used in the plastics industry. In other words, a very low volume of raw materials of recycled origin is used in the manufacture of products.”

The story is different for plastic films. “These consist of multiple layers and for certain applications you can incorporate recycled materials into these layers. In other words there are products that have had this characteristic for a long time.”


Katan-Ex Biobased

At AFP, 90-95 percent of the film is currently already recyclable. Topp has lots of praise for the films produced by AFP. “Their Katan-Ex Biobased stretch film is really brilliant technologically.” The Katan-Ex Biobased is made using 50 percent renewable raw materials, extracted from residual sugar production flows. “This film contains more of these renewable raw materials than its manufacturer would have thought possible.”

And that’s good news for everyone, says Topp: “For the entities selling the raw materials these kinds of success stories provide a boost. Because the next producer is going to try to duplicate this. And of course, we thrive on success stories and track records. And when a company like AFP sets the bar at a certain height, then this may very well become an industry standard.”


Waste Stream

As stated earlier, just about everything contains plastic. And this is indispensable, says Topp. In food packaging, for example. In the Netherlands, we consume a great deal of food that we cannot produce here. “Countries such as France and Italy locally produce a great deal of vegetables and fruit. We absolutely must continue to use film when this can extend the food’s shelf life, for example. It would be a terrible waste if cucumbers were to spoil halfway through their journey. You would then miss your goal altogether.”

All the more important then that we improve the plastics we use and that we improve how we deal with it. “Over the past 20 years, the weight of packaging has decreased by an average of 22 percent,” Topp states. “That’s quite a bit. However, you now are almost at the point beyond which you lose the required functionality. We are all taking positive steps and are giving it more careful thought.”

Furthermore, for a company, the Katan-Ex Biobased stretch film means a reduction of 50 percent in the use of petroleum-based raw materials and results in a 90 percent lower CO2 footprint compared to conventional stretch film. It cannot get any better than this,” says Topp. “I am sorry for AFP, but when it comes to the world at large, I hope that everyone will start imitating this film. We would all want this for a better world future.”

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