A world without plastic? No thanks!

All over the world, people are polluting the environment. Images of carelessly discarded plastic bags, straws and bottles dominate public perception. No other material is so well suited as a symbol of the harm we are doing to our planet. As a result, plastic has a bad reputation, and manufacturers of plastic products are held responsible. But does plastic really deserve its image? Sustainability experts Dr. Meriem Tazir and Dr. Maike Hora think it does not.

A world without plastic sounds like a tantalizing promise. Finally, litter-free parks, clear lakes and clean seas! At first glance, banning plastic from consumer goods seems to be the ideal way to get a grip on the waste problem. Dr Maike Hora, founder and managing director of e-hoch-3, a firm that specializes in advising companies on their sustainability strategy, knows that this is a fallacy. While it makes sense to save unnecessary plastic, banishing plastic completely from our economic system is not a solution. "Plastic is incredibly versatile in its material properties. There are many areas of life that would not be possible without plastic," says Hora. "Plastic can also save lives. Think here, for example, of the use of infusion bags in hospitals." Moreover, even supposedly more sustainable alternatives do not deliver what they promise at second glance. One example: cardboard packaging is often thicker and heavier. Energy and water consumption in its production and recycling is relatively high. Nevertheless, the prejudice persists that they are more sustainable than their plastic counterparts. Why? "It's human nature. Paper is a very old material, the raw material comes from trees, and trees are a good thing. Wood decomposes naturally. And what is natural is intuitively also sustainable," is how the expert summarizes the common view. "Moreover, the collection systems for paper and cardboard have been established for a very long time in many parts of the world. Therefore, people also know that there are also functioning disposal and recycling systems for this."

In order to understand the impact of a material on the environment, it is necessary to consider a variety of factors. From production and use to disposal and further processing of the material. And that is complex. Because often the effects of one material or another are only indirect: "For example, if I can make perishable food last longer with special plastic packaging, I avoid having to throw away valuable food," says Hora. The core of the problem is not the material itself, but its use: "If I use a single-use plastic product and throw it away, like a plastic fork, it creates waste. If I can use a product again and again, I avoid creating waste in the first place." 

Still, plastic remains a problem in the environment. The solution, however, does not lie in outlawing plastics. Taking a systemic view of the entire material cycle is rather more promising. "Here, Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions has taken the right path," says Tazir. "Through cooperation with recycling providers such as the startup Rester Oy in Finland, Freudenberg extends its influence on the chain of recyclable materials beyond its own production and thus returns plastic to the material cycle." Freudenberg also sets standards in the industry in product design: "The DESIGNED-4-CIRCULARITY approach, which we developed together with Freudenberg, aims to develop products in such a way that as much material as possible from the existing cycle is reused in the company's own products. In addition, Freudenberg thereby creates the conditions so that they can also be added back to the cycle as easily as possible after disposal." The Turbo Bucket, for example, consists of over 70 percent recycled material.  Over 95 percent of the plastic is mono-material, which simplifies the recycling process in contrast to complex composite materials. In addition, Freudenberg designs the components so that recycling centers can easily separate them. "So even a Vileda Turbo bucket can be easily recycled after many years of use in many modern recycling yards if appropriate processes are in place in the disposal system," concludes Tazir.