The plastics industry sent its message during K 2022: circular economy, digitalization, and climate protection will continue to be major themes.

The celebration of the 70th anniversary of K (www.k-online.com), the largest and most important plastics and rubber fair on the planet, could not be different: 3,037 exhibitors (from 60 countries), occupying 18 pavilions and being visited by 176 thousand people (from 157 countries) during the 8 days of the fair. As a tonic, innovation from multiple solutions in machinery, materials and products for the transformation towards a circular economy model.

At the end of the journey, one certainty: the K was a success and according to what the exhibitors reported, it contributed, mainly, to new bonds with customers and to the conclusion of several spontaneous business deals. In other words, the market needs were dammed up and a giant fair like this was the ideal scenario for a fresh start of good business.

Not even the current political and economic uncertainties overshadowed the performance of the industries present at the K. On the contrary, everything indicates that the turbulent times and the transformation of the sector towards circularity were perfect ingredients to determine the future steps of the sector.

But there are good reasons behind this success. And one of them is called technology embedded in raw materials, machines, and processing systems for plastics not only to implement the circular economy, but also to ensure the conservation of natural resources and climate protection.

As Ulrich Reifenhäuser, Chairman of the Exhibitor Council at K 2022, felt, “We clearly felt that companies have embraced the need to assume their social responsibility and think about plastics in a more sustainable way right from the beginning of the processing chain. The variety of solutions, machinery and products for processing with this circular appeal was unbelievable at this K.”

Another important aspect, despite travel restrictions in some Asian countries, was the internationalization of the fair. There were 42% foreign visitors, especially from European countries – Holland, Italy, Turkey, France, Belgium, Poland, and Spain – and from nations such as the United States, Brazil, and India.

About 2/3 of the visitors showed greater interest in machinery and plant construction. Another 57% said they were looking for raw materials, with a focus on recycled materials and bio plastics. For 28% of them, semi-finished products and technical parts made of plastic and rubber were the main motivation for visiting K.

In other words, the searches were fully aligned with the three themes of the fair: circular economy, climate protection and digitalization. On investment intentions, machinery and equipment for processing and recycling were the choice of 43% of visitors, with the emphasis being on sustainability, but also on circular economy and more efficient use of resources and energy in production.

Official data from Messe Düsseldorf (www.messe-duesseldorf.de), organizer of the K, indicate a global production of plastics of 390.7 million tons in 2021, with Germany alone accounting for 21 million tons. Among the industry’s main challenges are supply chain bottlenecks and exploding energy prices.

Out of 390.7 million tons of plastics produced globally in 2021, it is worth noting that 352.3 million tons were still derived from fossil raw materials, and only 32.5 million tons from recycled plastics and 5.9 million tons from bio-plastics.

About the application of these plastics in Europe, research from Plastics Europe (www.plasticseurope.org) points to the packaging industry as the main customer, with 39% share, followed by construction, with 21%, and automotive industry, with 9%.

The global production of machinery and equipment for plastics and rubber in 2021 totaled 38.6 billion Euros, compared to 34.2 billion Euros in the previous year. China alone had a 35% share of this amount, followed by Germany with 19.6% and Italy with 7.1%. The ranking remained similar in international trade: China had a 23.9% share of global exports of machinery and equipment, followed by Germany, with 22%, Japan, 9.1%, and Italy, 8.6%.

In short, what we saw at the K 2022 was an active industry ready to face the various challenges, especially the environmental ones. An industry that has never been more aligned and unanimous about the needs for operational and closed cycles throughout the materials chain. An industry that is willing to work cohesively in developing solutions for environmental compatibility, resource preservation, and waste reduction. An industry willing to assume its responsibility and work to make plastics a strategic solution for the future, not a problem.

Among other attributions, without plastics the management of the world’s climate will not be possible. After all, plastics enable lighter constructions, the mobility required by digital models, and the use of wind and solar energy. And in this context the Circular Economy model is of vital importance, while digitalization is indispensable for ensuring transparency and efficiency of resource use.

And what to expect in the future? More than waiting, the important thing is to build paths that pave the sustainability of plastics on a daily basis. And among them, one can include: materials that ensure better barrier properties and encourage mono-material packaging with strong appeal for recycling; more intensive use of post-consumer recycled content (PCR); use of materials from alternative sources to fossil sources; and use of clean energy in production.

By Liliam Benzi*

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