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Green words must be followed by deeds

Ecology, sustainability, and recycling have long been on the business agenda - now they have come to stay. Manuel Heidbrink, VskE Chairman and Klemens Ehrlitzer, VskE Managing Director, on the current situation in the industry and the new section "Ecology & Sustainability" in the trade journal "Etiketten-Labels".

In 2009, Labelexpo had already designated part of the fair as a "Green Park" in order to present the topic of ecology. There was no actual impact on the industry. Since then, wherever companies have picked up on green issues, it has mainly been marketing campaigns with a green slant. At the latest since the Fridays for Future movement has attracted worldwide attention, the situation has changed fundamentally. The focus has shifted to packaging in particular - and thus also to the segment of labels used for sales packaging at the point of sale.

The VskE (Verband der Hersteller selbstklebender Etiketten und Schmalbahnkonverter e.V.) reacted to this development at an early stage and initiated a round table event in May 2019 under the heading "environmentally friendly and sustainable packaging from the point of view of labels". Its aim is to develop recommendations for action for members and to provide information on the complex interrelationships of the topic. In the opinion of VskE Chairman Manuel Heidbrink, it would also be desirable for the new heading in label labels to contribute to this, because there is currently a great deal of half-knowledge and misleading information about the sustainability of labels circulating in the market.

Focus on plastics

First and foremost, all plastic packaging is the focus of discussions. The demand is to reduce the use of plastics as much as possible. Since approximately one-quarter of the face materials of self-adhesive labels are based on plastics, they are directly affected by this. However, the majority of adhesive labels are based on paper. This material fraction already has a well-developed recycling management system.

"At the latest since the Fridays for Future movement has attracted worldwide attention, the situation has changed fundamentally."

The public debate is putting particular pressure on the retail chains, some of which are passing this on to their suppliers with blanket demands for products with more environmental compatibility. In order to be able to conduct a dialogue with customers on the basis of well-founded arguments, label companies need comprehensive know-how on the entire subject. VskE Managing Director Klemens Ehrlitzer sees one of the association's tasks as collecting and processing appropriate knowledge for its members in appropriate working groups.

How the public sustainability discussion will affect the use of adhesive labels in the packaging sector in the future will also depend on the industry being able to convince users in practice that labels offer ecological advantages in many respects. The ability of the label industry to adapt to a changing market with new product ideas will also prove beneficial.

Building know-how

When building up know-how, the VskE can logically already draw on information and experience gained in the past, for example in the recycling working group. There is also a thematic overlap with the Compliance working group, which has been working for over ten years on how labels can meet the diverse requirements of the legislator. The Sustainability Working Group, which was launched in May 2019, can build on this expertise. In organisational terms, the sub-group that deals with the recycling of packaging in the VskE sustainability initiative will also be integrated into the existing working group.

When it was founded, the Working Group Recycling set itself the following task. "For the recycling of liner and matrix, the working group will investigate, define and implement legally compliant, practicable and economical disposal concepts within the entire supply chain for the future". This objective is supplemented by the extension to the topic of sustainability with the following task: "For the area of packaging recycling, argumentation aids and recommendations for the association members are being developed which show how label solutions, in addition to their current important functions, e.g. the provision of information, can increase the recyclability of packaging and other labelled products in the future.

Ecology increasingly important

Ecological aspects also play an increasingly important role in higher-level planning bodies. For example, the VskE working committee is planning to combine its traditional autumn meeting with a visit to a recycling plant. In this way, the participants want to take the opportunity to gain first-hand practical knowledge about the requirements for sustainable packaging or labels.

"Ecological aspects also play an increasingly important role in the higher-level planning committees".

However, experience has shown that other working groups dealing with areas such as digitisation or material specification are also repeatedly confronted with sustainability requirements at various points. Being able to use such cross-connections in the association's network is one of the main advantages of the VskE. As a professional association, the VskE offers an ideal platform for the exchange of relevant information. All members have the opportunity to make use of extensive knowledge acquired in various working committees on the one hand, but also to actively participate in the development of innovative solutions on the other.

Tackling issues together

Membership in an association gives many companies the unique opportunity to tackle issues together that are often too big for individual companies. Where it is possible to find a consensus on certain issues, this can lead to a standard under the umbrella of the association, which can be referred to by an entire industry. A concrete example is the Guide to Conformity Work, which since its publication by the VskE in 2013 has become a kind of industry standard. It is the principle objective of the VskE that working groups produce concrete results such as guidelines or recommendations for action. Manuel Heidbrink can confirm from his own experience that participation in working groups is a commitment that is worthwhile: "You don't get dumber by any means by participating!”

The first step

If the new "Ecology and Sustainability" section raises awareness among readers, this may already be the first step towards greater commitment to green issues in practice. Manuel Heidbrink is convinced that it is, in any case, the duty of every citizen to take responsibility in this respect. In addition, customer demands are now taking up the issue of sustainability in such concrete terms that companies can hardly ignore them without jeopardizing their existence. If even the European Union itself sets itself the goal of becoming climate-neutral as a continent by 2050, and a hedge fund-like BlackRock focuses on "green investing", the economic interest alone should be enough to take ecology and sustainability seriously as a development goal. From Klemens Ehrlitzer's point of view, nobody should expect market pressure to ease one day when the plastics debate dies down. On the one hand, the subject is high on the agenda of young people, and on the other hand, the legislator has been dealing with this issue not just since yesterday, as the new packaging law, which last year succeeded the repeatedly amended Packaging Ordinance of 1991, shows.

Source: by Editor Etiketten-Labels, 20 February 2020
Picture: Manuel Heidbrink (l.) VskE chairman and Klemens Ehrlitzer, VskE managing director (source: Michael Scherhag)

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