"Recyclers and the plastics industry must work together more closely"
Prof. Dr Christina Dornack is a professor of waste and recycling management in the environmental sciences department at TU Dresden. In an interview she told us, among other things, why doing without plastic is not a solution and which screws can be used to improve the image of plastic.
You watched the report "The Recycling Lie". Is waste separation and recycling in Germany a lie?
Waste separation has worked very well in Germany for many years. Just because sorting and processing losses also occur in separating systems and waste streams generated from them take scandalous paths in individual cases, it would be wrong to claim that the entire system does not work. Since it was introduced, we have learned quite a lot. The recycling system is geared to this waste separation, or the waste separation to the recycling system - and that is how it works. Only waste that has been properly separated can be recycled properly afterwards. If we don't separate, we can't recycle. It's no lie, we have very high recycling rates in this country. We have large quantities of materials that we can reuse as secondary raw materials. Therefore, waste separation and recycling go very well together.
The plastics industry knows its weak points and is working to eliminate them. A lot has been going on for three years - also due to the Packaging Act. What is your opinion on this?
The cooperation between the plastics manufacturers and the recyclers still has to improve significantly. The recyclers know very well which plastics can be recycled well and how high-quality secondary raw materials can be produced from them. The industry, on the other hand, knows very well its requirements for high-quality input materials for production. The plastics manufacturers and recyclers have to cooperate better so that the products can be recycled well in the end. Then we will get much higher quality recycling. At the same time, the quality of secondary raw materials is improving, so that products can also be significantly improved in terms of their recyclability.
The film also talks about the greenwashing of the big corporations. Right or wrong?
From my point of view, there is no greenwashing. Of course, there are always a few black sheep in every industry and it is also good if a few things are exposed. But one must not generalise an industry. What the recycling industry has achieved and developed in recent years, how high-quality its secondary raw materials are now, which it produces from the recycled materials, that is a good achievement. You cannot generally assign things to an industry that one, two or even more actors implement and that do not meet the standards.
Recycling Progress With Plastic Packaging
There are calls to do away with plastic. Is that the solution for you?
Doing away with plastic is not the solution. Plastics are very important and very valuable products. They help us in many situations in life and make many products possible in the first place. However, we should do without short-lived plastics and short-lived packaging that is made of plastic and that is only used once for a short time. The point is to keep plastic and plastic products in use for much longer. We can talk about reusable packaging and alternatives. In my opinion, it is wrong to demonise plastic in general. Plastic products and especially recycled plastic products are often more environmentally friendly compared to alternative materials used in the same way. Today, this is often not taken into account when developing alternative materials, for example from biological material.
Do you think that citizens will change their consumption behaviour?
I believe that we can change our consumption behaviour. But it is always a question of whether we are helped to do so, for example by getting information about what is good for the environment and what is not, for example through appropriate product certification or recycling labels. In addition, politics should also help a little. It would make sense if we had to pay a price on packaging such as short-life multilayer packaging and composite plastic packaging that reflects how harmful it is for the environment. This price would certainly make it easier to reach for more ecological packaging.
Do recycling and the circular economy improve the plastic image in addition to the climate balance?
Of course recycling and circular economy can improve the plastic image. Plastic is a great product that we will continue to need in the future. The only question is: what do we do with it at the end of its life when it can no longer be used? How do we deal with it? And can we manage to get the plastic back into a product? This only works if we produce recyclable plastic products and plastic packaging that can be kept in the cycle. Because then they don't end up in the environment in the first place.
What are your wishes for the plastics industry?
The alliances concluded so far between plastics recyclers and retailers or plastics producers (Prezero and Lidl or Borealis and mtm plastics) as well as the commitments for more recyclate use are a very good start that should be further developed. If we have tight loops that are designed to work within the individual sectors, such as with special packaging or with PET bottles, then the manufacturers have already developed their own secondary raw material source and the loops work quite well. PET bottle manufacturers like to use the recycled PET to make new products again. This is because it has a good quality that can also be easily evaluated. Others have to follow suit here and also build up internal cycles, such as the textile industry, which would also like to use plastics from the PET sector, but does not have its own plastic cycles. If we can continue to build up sector-specific cycles here, that would be wonderful.
What would you like to see from politicians in Germany and the EU?
I would like to see environmentally sound policies that promote environmentally sound behaviour and products. Products that are not environmentally friendly or that are not produced in an environmentally friendly way or according to ethical standards should become financially unattractive. The more environmentally friendly product should also be the cheaper product. Then more environmentally friendly products would also be bought more. Policymakers must exert appropriate influence on this. For this, politics must be courageous and pave the way for environmentally friendly packaging and for environmentally friendly products.
Thank you very much for the interview, Prof. Dr. Dornack.
About Prof. Dr. Christina Dornack
Prof. Dr. Ing. habil. Christina Dornack has been Vice Dean Teaching at the Faculty of Environmental Sciences at TU Dresden since October 2020. She has already been Professor of Waste and Recycling Management there since 2015. She was previously head of the Raw Materials and Recycling Department at the Papiertechnische Stiftung Heidenau, Munich, in 2013 and 2014.