VDMA: Industry interviews on the road to the K – Ulrich Reifenhäuser

The world is facing major challenges: Climate change must be fought; the environment must be protected, and resources must be conserved. It is also important to make good use of the opportunities offered by digitalisation. The plastics industry has a key role in this process because plastics are ubiquitous in the world. Climate protection, digitalisation and the circular economy are therefore also the three major topics at K 2022, the world’s leading trade fair for the plastics industry. To get in the mood for the industry meeting in autumn 2022, the VDMA is letting representatives of the plastics machinery industry and all other stakeholders in the sector have their say through weekly interviews.

The first in the series is an interview with Ulrich Reifenhäuser, Chairman of the Exhibitor Advisory Board of the K and Chairman of the Plastics and Rubber Machinery Association within the VDMA.

„Leading fairs are more important than ever“

Ulrich Reifenhäuser (Source: VDMA)

K 2022 will focus on three mega topics simultaneously: climate protection, digitalisation and the circular economy. How are these topics related, and why are they so important for the plastics industry?

Climate protection is the outright most important main global topic. Circular Economy is an important industry topic and represents a partial solution to the major issue of climate protection. Digitalisation is an attempt at a solution that is necessary both for climate protection measures and for establishing the circular economy. All three topics will be presented in a very multi-faceted way at K. The plastics industry is absolutely crucial to the goal of CO2 reduction, to the reduction of the carbon footprint. Without plastics, careful management of the global climate will not be possible at all. The circular economy, in turn, is vitally important for plastics as a material. And digitalisation has risen to a whole new level. Here’s just one example: plastic waste can be precisely identified through digitalisation, which is extremely important for recycling.

What are the levers that can be applied to slow down climate change?

Climate protection and the associated reduction of CO2 emissions are the most important goals for the plastics industry, and therefore also the most important topic at the K. This involves, for example, measures to reduce the CO2 footprint during production.
But the major topic for action is certainly circular economy. We won’t find any completely new levers to apply – after all, we didn’t just start working on this yesterday. It’s more a matter of improving and refining the processes that have already been introduced. Which products can be eliminated? How can we reduce the number of input materials while maintaining the same functionality? How can those products be recycled for which there has previously been no recycling option? There are new procedures that can enable all of this and are to be presented at the K. And finally, it’s also about conserving even more energy in our industry. These are the real levers we have at our disposal.

Energy efficiency has long been a priority, if only because it reduces costs. Is there still room for manoeuvre?

Yes, there is always room for manoeuvre. The greater the need and the greater the pressure to change something, the more creative engineers become. This is especially true for mechanical engineering.

The plastics industry cannot meet major challenges without politics. What role should it play, ideally?

Politics necessarily sets the rules. Combating climate change and the circular economy are not just national tasks, they are global tasks. Politics must guide sensibly and set a regulatory framework. To do this, stakeholders must delve deeply into the issues to be able to provide sensible guidelines. Banning straws may be effective in the media, but it does nothing to solve the problem. Politicians must think big and set a clear direction, also in the form of legislation. This is necessary if only so that we can pick up speed in achieving our common goals.

What would you like to see from the new federal government in this regard?

When it comes to climate protection, I would like to see a concrete assessment of climate harmfulness. That brings us to the carbon footprint, the CO2 balance of the various products. Looking at food, you can read on the products how many calories they have. Why not do the same with the CO2 footprint? In this way, you could establish objectivity and comparability. In addition, I would like to see clear specifications for the use of recycled materials in products. If high quality recycled material is more expensive than virgin material, it won’t be used. So you need valid specifications for all materials, ideally by way of quotas. Why shouldn’t 50 percent of a garbage can be made of rcyclates? This would give the circular economy a real boost.
Should Germany have a leading role in this regard? We cannot call ourselves the European Union and then let each country do everything for itself. But I think it is right for Germany perhaps, in union with two or three other important EU countries, to go ahead with such measures. Then we will get closer to our goal more quickly than seeking agreement with 27 nations right from the start.

The K has not been directly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. The last fair took place before the pandemic, and the next one will follow it. Many other trade shows have been cancelled however, which raises the question: Will we still need leading trade fairs in the future?

Trade shows will change. There will be hygiene concepts everywhere in the future. There will be additional digital offerings alongside the face-to-face event. The number of visitors and exhibitors is likely to drop. In future, for example, a customer will come to a trade fair booth. If the conversation includes detailed questions, a colleague from the relevant company may be called in via smartphone. For this reason, digital communication will play an important role. Nevertheless, leading trade fairs are more important than ever, as depth of exchange is only possible face to face. Information is readily exchanged in digital meetings; however, when it comes to building confidence, persuasion and generating emotions, there is no substitute for in-person meetings.
A trade fair also has the major advantage of being a marketplace, enabling multiple substantiated opinions on the spot. The pandemic experience has actually increased the importance of trade fairs in general, but especially that of leading trade fairs.

Video statement https://vimeo.com/636318091