Our interview with plastics expert Dr. Harald Käb
Sustainability is not a state, but a way of continuous improvement
Harald, can you introduce yourself and say what you have to do with plastic and why?
I am a trained chemist and have been working full-time in the field of "chemistry and plastics from renewable raw materials" for more than 25 years - 20 years of which as an independent consultant. Professionally, I'm a tough nut, because I can afford to be the only one who stands up and asks critical questions when everyone else keeps quiet. Privately, I am the one who will never throw a single bit of rubbish into nature, because that's how I was brought up. I’ve got green roots and the "material resource change" is my life task. I'm also a big plastic fan!
What do you like about plastic and what do you generally think about the material plastic in the packaging sector?
Those who reject plastics per se have no idea of their very strong benefits. Our modern world is based upon plastics – in the packaging sector, they are still often the best choice when it comes to efficient product protection. The problems associated with their use are upstream and downstream. The following applies (in short!): Fossil raw materials have no future, and efforts towards a circular economy have not really been successful so far. Packaging plastics are not to be blamed for the misconduct of the users. It’s our job to put an end to our 'throwaway society'.
In your opinion, is plastic replaceable, and if so, with what? If not, why?
It often makes little ecological sense to replace plastics with other materials such as glass, metal or paper, because their manufacture is often more complex while putting even more strain on the environment. Also, recycled fibers can only be used to a limited extent. In the food sector, for example, recyclates (these are reprocessed and thus reusable plastics with defined properties) can’t be used at all due to hygiene and food safety regulations.
Today it is often claimed that plastic can be replaced by paper. Just recently, a paper tube for cosmetics was being hailed as an "innovative breakthrough". But in order for that tube to protect the valuable lotion inside, a probably very high binder content - that is liquid plastic adhesives - or plastic layers must have been applied. And the fact that the tube will not be recyclable either in the plastic or paper stream is also being concealed. This is deliberate misinformation. Paper cannot do what plastic does, because paper has neither the mechanical properties nor the barrier to water or oxygen that the contents need.
Where do you see the biggest potential for reducing plastics?
The use of plastic can only be reduced to some extent. If the product isn’t protected and goes off unused, the damage is greater by a factor of 10 or more. We need to look for reusable packaging solutions. I hope that innovative service providers can create momentum here.
Above all, however, the raw material base of plastic products needs to be changed: from new fossil fuels to bio-based and recycled plastics with lower CO2 emissions. Recycling is now the focus, but due to the insufficient quality of the recyclates and the high demands on product safety, it only presents a rather limited solution. Plastics made from renewable raw materials, agricultural plants, organic residues or even CO2 are therefore really important. We need clear guidelines on the use of these renewable and recycled parts – and in the end, only the legislation can provide that - as well as the introduction of an appropriate CO2 tax (50-80 EUR / ton today, towards 150 EUR by 2030). If CO2 emissions are massively reduced, all possible harmful environmental effects will be decreased. Knowing how little time we have left to sort this out, the focus must be on consistent climate protection - it is fundamentally important.
Where is more CO2 being produced: during production or disposal?
During production - here the carbon footprint is determined. How much of this is recovered proportionally is determined by the recycling process. If recycled material is used as a replacement for new goods in plastic packaging at 100%, then roughly 50% CO2 can be saved. This is very good, but with exceptions hardly feasible in practice, usually only a part of the plastic can be replaced by recyclates.
Which initiatives do you find useful and which not at all, or even counterproductive and why?
I am excited to see whether it is now possible to make the collected plastic waste recyclable - as recently promised by many people - especially through improved sorting and recycling technology. The fact that plastic waste can no longer be exported so easily was long overdue and is right. We have removed far too much (allegedly) "recycled plastic waste" and created problems in other countries (especially in Asia). Those involved in the recycling industry simply exported the tasks and problems leaving them to third parties, which often exacerbated the situation (side note: plastic waste in the ocean). That was and is wrong and unfair. Now things are getting serious here, that's a good thing. I also think it’s a shame that there is still no honest discussion, let alone action upon the basis of today's and foreseeable state of affairs. Statements such as "The climate package doesn’t cost anything" are simply lies. And I also think that plastics' potential for recycling is too positively portrayed to the public. On the other hand, plastic bashing doesn’t help anyone either.
What agitates you most about the subject? What could be done better?
What I really can’t stand is dishonesty as a tactical maneuver, withholding of serious disadvantages. I like the opposite of that, even if you can't tell a perfect story with it. If you are honest, you are more able to act.
Companies are under insane pressure when it comes to packaging. Many factors play a role, which are often out of their control. For decades, everyone has been looking away. That’s not possible anymore. Manufacturers need to look for solutions and invest in new technologies. And customers have to make conscious choices: Whom do I trust? Whom do I buy from? The informed consumer, who expresses his conviction with his purchase, can have a great influence. To do so, he must know that environmental protection costs something - and that is his money. Anyone who says otherwise has only short-term interests in mind. For a long time, things went in the wrong direction, everything became cheaper and cheaper, at least superficially. In truth, nature has paid the real price; or one could say we have paid the price at the expense of our environment, the quality of our home. That's over - now it's Pay Day. Those who are informed will accept that. And then we have a chance, because we can do a much better job!
Can you give us examples of real solutions?
The dream is to make everything from renewable raw materials. A lot is already possible. For example, polymers* could be made from German sugar beet. At a time when sugar demand in the food sector is declining, sugar producers would be pleased to see a new market emerge.
Sugar cane-based PLA (polylactides**) already exists and could be used. PLA can also be produced from methane, e.g. from fermentation plants. That would be technologically complex and there is no machinery for it yet, but if the demand were there, it would start!
In the beginning, change always costs more money. We know this from green electricity. At some point, prices go down again. But at the moment, climate protection must come first. And with bio-based packaging, we can really make a difference!
In other words, consumers must demand better packaging and be prepared to pay more for it. What else can we do?
Don't throw anything away! Separate your waste as well as possible and put everything into the according systems. That's your job done. From then on, it’s up to legislation. The issue of a circular economy must finally be taken seriously, and collection systems must be optimised with regard to recyclability and more stringent controls.
What do you think of projects such as the tote bag collection campaign for a little Portuguese store & café, which – in the name of sustainability - doesn’t offer its customer’s bags for the goods purchased? Does that make any difference?
Yes! Such micro-initiatives are great, inspiring and should be further established. Don't we all have too many tote bags lying around somewhere that can come in really handy elsewhere? Such approaches can take us a step closer to a circular economy, too.
What else inspires you? What is good and effective regarding this topic?
I find Greta Thunberg extremely inspiring, because she is focused: "Only the climate catastrophe has to be prevented, everything else is an accessory and can be tackled later. Without a stable planet, everything will end in chaos – do something already!" She's right, and she inspires not just me, but millions of people. This can create the strong movement we need - the clock is ticking! The goal is to set out and break new ground, despite complexities and being trapped in inconsistencies as well as economic constraints; even if contradictions remain. Sustainability is not a state, but a way of continuous improvement.
How do you personally deal with this tension between entitlement and possibility – our contradicting lifestyles?
Keep cool! I think it's incredibly nice to be in the world, especially right now, as we are finally taking action and really moving forward. It’s not long ago that most people didn’t even know that plastic is made from oil and that this is not sustainable anyway. But nowadays people are better informed and can’t be fooled by every greenwashing strategy.
I am thrilled to be able to take part in this crazy experiment - "Revolutionary Mutation of the Apes on Planet Earth". What a show! Even if we don't succeed, we've still come a long way! And if we manage to take advantage of our possibilities, we will conquer new dimensions and soon leave all that monkey business far behind.
If you were "the boss", what would you do immediately?
Like Greta, I would invest in education. Give me and the many other factually, technically and scientifically substantiated scouts who are free from economic partial interests every day "10 unavoidable minutes" at primetime, whether in the news, on Facebook or Instagram - and we will build a sustainable and just world together.
And until then, we can follow you on Twitter .
That’s right, my one-man show is already up and running.
Apart from a really good circular economy, in which everything is made from renewable raw materials, what else do you want?
I want a society that returns to honesty. This is where I’d like to thank MOIN, a company that addresses the challenges of doing business sustainably and strives for open communication with its customers, in order to find better ways together.
Your recommendation to people who lie in bed at night dreaming of plastic waste islands in the ocean:
Specifically: Read more philosophical texts and turn off your mobile phone and Internet more often. And generally: Be nice to each other as well as to the planet, and just do your best.
Thank you, Harald Käb!
*polymers are a substance consisting of macromolecules (polymeric compounds)
**polylactides, also called polylactic acid, is a product of fermentation of sugar and starch by lactic acid bacteria.
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