ALPLA CEO Philipp Lehner wants to further promote the recycling of plastics and the circular economy, but also incorporate the positive sides and benefits of plastics into public debate. He explains the details in an exclusive interview with the industry journal Kunststoffzeitung.
'Benefits of plastic are usually not taken into account in debates about the material'
Mr Lehner, you are cooperating with an agency that is focused on the benefits of plastic. What is the reasoning behind this?
We have been developing plastic as a packaging material for over 60 years at ALPLA and we want to continue doing so for the next 60 years – and hopefully much longer. However, we also see it as our duty to stand up for this material and to make sure that the benefits of plastic solutions are included in the emotionally driven public debates about the topic.
Over the last 60 years, plastics have achieved a lot of positive things and built up a strong reputation for a long time. However, in recent years, other aspects have come to the fore, which have unfortunately led to a very one-sided view of things. We believe that the reason plastics have taken on such an important role in our lives is the great number of benefits they offer. For example, their high strength, good formability, chemical stability, low cost and many more. Plastic still offers these benefits, but these are not usually taken into account in the current debates, which often take on quite an emotional form. We therefore want to broaden the public debate to include the positive aspects of plastic, so as to facilitate more informed decisions.
Unfortunately, the rest of the industry is quite cautious in this regard. I would like to see more people contributing their ingenuity, wealth of ideas and experience to bring more nuance to the debate around plastics. This is why we are interacting quite a lot with the public, which marks a change for a producer such as us, which has historically tended to operate more in the background. But I would be happy if other representatives from our industry would follow suit here. This is also against the backdrop of a lot of short-term actions and campaigns at the moment. Whenever I meet with various interest groups, I’m constantly having to deal with demands which, with all the best will in the world, I simply can't understand any more.
A ban on PET bottles, for example. This could be done, of course, but then a large part of the population of Mexico, for example, would no longer have access to clean drinking water. These types of facts have to be taken into account in order to find solutions that work. On top of this, different factors are lumped together in the public debate that have nothing to do with one another. For example, environmental pollution through plastic waste is associated with CO2 emissions. The fact is that there is no better-performing material than plastic in terms of CO2 emissions. Unfortunately, the positive sides of plastics like this are often forgotten in the debate.
'It is important to look at the complete picture'
Experts believe that months or even years of strong reasoning with facts can be destroyed by a single image – for example, a turtle with its neck stuck in a six-pack plastic ring. Can an individual person or company do anything in the face of professional non-profit organisations?
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. But it's necessary, and there isn’t any alternative. Pictures like the one of the turtle exist, and pictures are a very powerful method of conveying a message. However, it is important to look at the complete picture. The path ahead may be rocky, but now the other side also needs to respond because of what we’re doing. It is therefore important that we broaden and enrich the public debate, so that it’s possible to identify the actual problem and come up with a solution.
We want to make sure that we are not led by emotion and to avoid making decisions that have nothing to do with the actual problem. We want to focus communication on the actual problems. And we also want to raise awareness of the fact that there are already many excellent solutions in place around the world that are working very well. One of these is a waste incineration plant in Africa where used plastic has an important second use as an energy source. I firmly believe that the best kinds of solutions are ones that meet several needs. In this case, that means the generation of energy and heat combined with disposal of packaging material, so it no longer builds up out of control in nature.
Plastics ending up in nature is the real problem that the industry is currently struggling with.
That’s right. No one wants to be surrounded by plastic waste and no one wants to see a turtle with its neck stuck in a piece of plastic. We need solutions for this. But, when having this debate, we also can’t lose sight of the fact that the problems we have today with plastics ending up in nature are also due to the incredible success of plastics. The world has never been better off thanks to the economic success of the last few decades. We have the highest income per capita, the lowest percentage of people below the poverty line, the lowest infant mortality rates.
If we look at how the world has progressed, it’s really a remarkable success. We have helped to create the prosperity of today with our solutions for mass consumption. However, the reality is that we won’t have fewer people on our planet in the future, but more. Most of these people won’t have their own garden in order to provide for themselves, but will live in cities. And we also need to supply these people efficiently in the future. And this is where we come in. In general, a lot has changed for the better – partly thanks to the use of plastics. The next step now is to identify the problem with plastic waste and to find a solution. But humans are ingenious. We will go about this and find a solution.
'Incorporating fact-based reasoning into public debate'
Let’s say a genie comes to your office and gives you three wishes related to plastic packaging. What would they be?
First, I would like there to be more fact-based reasoning in public debate of the issue. This is also our mission in our dialogue with the public. I would also like to see more collection systems and mechanisms for recycling. There are now numerous efficient technologies for physical recycling, which we are promoting with great commitment with ALPLA, but we also need to expand the debate to include energy recycling. In the future, in all discussions around packaging and recycling, I would therefore like the focus to be on making sure that we get maximum benefit out of the materials we use. The goal must be to reduce the use of resources as a whole.
The interview was conducted by Günter Kögel, Kunststoffzeitung
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