Interview with Alfred Stern, CEO of Borealis

The K 2019 trade fair for plastics and rubber will take place from 16 – 23 October 2019 in Düsseldorf, Germany, where the VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association will shine the spotlight on the recycling sector and show how closed loops can work effectively. A series of interviews is shedding light on why it is doing this and the significance of the „Circular Economy“ for member companies of the association. In this interview, Alfred Stern, CEO of Borealis AG, will talk about his views on the sub

“Plastics are often the more sustainable solution”, said Alfred Stern (Source: Borealis)

Why do plastics manufacturer endorse circular economy?

A new era is dawning for our sector. The sooner we prepare for real circular economy the more positive the effect will be on our economic growth, the environment, our customers and the society as a whole. We also see circular economy as a business opportunity; we expect the market for recycled polyolefin to grow. We at Borealis are convinced that plastics are too valuable to be dumped. Our vision is to do away with plastic waste and to recycle plastics as a raw material.

Oil is considered a limited resource. On the one hand, the forecasts on peak oil differ, but on the other hand many predict its end. Against this background, is circular economy for plastics an example for proactive management?

The Stone Age was not followed by the metal age because our ancestors no longer had stones but because new and better solutions were found. It is similar with oil: With ever greater efforts we will be able to wring oil of the earth but there will be a time when this no longer pays off because, hopefully better, more straightforward and more sustainable solutions are available. Until then it is important to use oil as sensibly as possible, that means manufacturing plastics products that can be recycled at the end of their useful lives. Our major focus is on establishing a genuine circular economy.

More and more voices are being raised demanding replacement of plastics by other materials. The latest example was the replacement of the material for drinking straws. Does that make sense?

My approach is rather pragmatic: plastics should be used where it is clearly better than other materials. And it is a fact that plastics are the more sustainable alternative in many aspects of daily life, for example in the automotive industry where in lightweight constructions plastics considerably contribute to a reduction in fuel consumption. Or in the medical sector; there are hardly any useful alternatives for plastic blood and infusion bags. And in the field of food packaging, plastics help keep food fresh and hygienic for longer. Most alternative materials are much heavier and for this reason cause greater environmental damage during transportation, or they do not fulfil the same functions with regard to steam or oxygen barrier. Sustainability should be an essential criterion when choosing the right material.

Plastics Europe states that circular economy offers a chance to improve Europe’s competitiveness and resource efficiency. How could this work?

Circular economy offers the possibility to improve resources efficiency if raw and other materials are optimally used and stay in the cycle at the end of their useful life. The world population is growing constantly, and fortunately disposable incomes are also increasing. This means that the demand for materials in general and for plastics in particular will continue to rise. If the current linear economic model remains in place, it will lead to more waste, irrespective of the material utilised. The solution is switching to a circular economy which also allows for a reduction in the use of primary raw materials and thus for cutting CO2 emissions. In the majority of applications plastics are the most ecologically efficient material.

What are the framework conditions EU politicians should set for circular economy of plastics to really work economically?

Banning does not contribute to a sustainable solution; on the contrary, it rather obstructs innovation. It is better to set concrete long-term goals, but to leave open how these goals are achieved in order to ensure full effectiveness of competition and innovation. Moreover, we need uniform, constructive legislation at European and international level. National solo efforts do not get us anywhere.

Where are the bottlenecks in the value-added chain of circular economies?

Cooperation of all players in the value-added chain is essential, but also a challenge. That’s why we have launched the EverMinds platform – the first of its kind in the sector. Together with our customers and partners we can initiate concrete measures to implement the principles of circular economy in a larger scale in the industry. EverMinds is planned as a promoter and accelerator of ideas, inspiring new, high-quality and innovative polyolefin solutions. Circular economy has the potential to break up encrusted structures in the sector. We will take up this challenge with pleasure because we want to develop customer-specific solutions with outstanding performance characteristics.

Product design plays a major role when it comes to recyclability of plastics. To what extent does that concern manufacturers of plastics? Where is this development heading?

The principles of circular economy drive us to develop new products with enhanced recycling capabilities. We already take this into account in the design phase and work closely together with our customers and partners to create products that can be recycled more easily, and to find new applications for these recyclates. For this reason we invest a considerable amount of our innovation resources in research and development projects in the field of recycling. We examine the complete life cycle of a product: how it is produced, processed, used and finally recovered or recycled.

About VDMA Plastics and Rubber Machinery
More than 230 companies are members of the association, covering more than 90 % of the industry’s production activities in Germany. 10 % of its member companies come from Austria, Switzerland and France. The German member companies represent sales of EUR 7 billion in core machinery and EUR 10 billion including peripheral technology. Every fourth plastics machine produced in the world comes from Germany; the export rate is 70 %. Ulrich Reifenhäuser, Member of the Management Board of the Reifenhäuser Group, is the chairman of the association.