Wolfgang Kitzler, MD of Constantia Flexibles Afripack, has taken over the chairman’s role from Arnold Vermaak, following his recent retirement. With them is Constantia Flexibles CEO, Alexander Baumgartner.
HISTORICALLY, the plastics and flexible packaging industry have been proficient in engineering products based on broad (rather than standardised) specifications – adding layers and barriers to efficiently and effectively protect goods and/or extend shelf-life using lightweight packaging.
The primary downside, considering the cost of energy and other inputs, is that once consumers have finished with the products, the packaging usually can’t be reused and is difficult to separate for recycling.
So commented CEO, Alexander Baumgartner, during a recent visit to Durban to celebrate Constantia Flexibles Afripack’s chairman, Arnold Vermaak’s retirement.
‘Three years ago, when I issued the challenge to our R&D team to create a fully-recyclable mono-material laminate film, many thought I was asking the impossible,’ he told PPM. ‘I admit I was surprised a year later when a possible solution was presented, and funding was allocated to invest in a small-scale pilot project to test its feasibility.’
Constantia Flexibles’ next step was to build its first Ecoflex factory dedicated to producing mono-PE lamination structures, meeting the standards of ISO 18604:2013 as recoverable for recycling, and certified as fully-recyclable by the RecyClass Platform, the Central Institute of Plastics Engineering & Technology, and the Cyclos Institute for Recyclability & Product Responsibility.
‘We chose to build this factory in India rather than Europe because prime minister, Narendra Modi, is on a mission to clean up India’s pollution problem and has committed to phasing out single-use plastics by 2022,’ Alexander went on to explain. ‘A number of measures provided a sound return on investment, and a consumer base of 1.4-billion people helped motivate a solid business case.’
The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the 24 500m² Ecoflex plant in Ahmedabad – which features a state-of-the-art blown film line, complemented by flexo printing, extrusion coating and adhesive lamination technologies – took place in November 2019.
However, as Alexander pointed out, it’s commercially challenging to ramp up technology when specifying fully-recyclable laminates for the first time. The EcoLam family, for example, is available in different barrier grades (EcoLam, EcoLamPlus and EcoLamHighPlus) to meet the needs of diverse products.
For this reason, a battery of tests (barrier properties, shelf-life and logistics) have been conducted with FMCG customers around the world, including a South African brand owner who has prioritised sustainability targets.
Results so far have been so encouraging and market response so positive that by June this year Constantia Flexibles plans to have its first EcoLam line running in Europe. This is possible for two reasons. Firstly, the design is based on a plug-and-play concept that’s highly reproducible on demand in any country. Secondly, Constantia Flexibles has partnered with a Polish converter, with whom it enjoys a well-established relationship. ‘This partner has many years’ PE blown film experience, allowing us to ramp up the production process more speedily and with fewer headaches,’ Alexander noted.
The installation and commissioning of the line in Poland also marks the start of phase two in the business plan – to run at least five lines, similar to that in Ahmedabad, by 2022.
Constantia Flexibles views itself as the current frontrunner in mono-PE technologies and hopes to maintain this point of differentiation by systematically improving the printability characteristics of the laminate and by assisting multinational brands to achieve their ambitious 2025 sustainability targets.
The broader global plastics and packaging value chain’s success in meeting these targets and switching to a circular economy model is built on three pillars: innovation, infrastructure and consumer education. Currently, the biggest missing link in the chain is the recycling/waste management infrastructure to collect, repurpose and reuse the waste into new end-use products. While governments and local municipalities tend to be slow in decision-making processes and issuing clear statements, in some cases raw material suppliers, converters, brand owners and retailers have been stepping in to fill the gaps through extended producer responsibility initiatives.
As a final word, Wolfgang Kitzler, senior VP and GM of Constantia Afripack, reported that South Africa’s producer responsibility organisations such as Polyco, of which Constantia Afripack is a member, representing polyolefin suppliers and converters, are building infrastructure and empowering collectors and recyclers where household separation-at-source doesn’t exist. For instance, Polyco provides loans to entrepreneurs for mobile Packa-Ching recycling units (consisting of a truck and trailer) that travel between low-income communities and surrounding schools to buy back recyclable packaging materials from residents via a cashless eWallet system.