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Five of our doctoral candidates attending the plastic conferences held in Germany.

Toss a plastic coin: Insights from two conferences

In modern production, plastics have become an inseparable part of our daily lives. However, there are two sides to this material spectrum. In the first week of November 2023, we visited the Plastic Free World trade fair in Cologne and the Formnext trade fair in Frankfurt to gain an impression of the current state of affairs on this topic. The Plastic Free World fair sheds light on the dark side of this ubiquitous material and seeks solutions to give this side of the plastic coin a new face. Our recent participation provided valuable insights and stimulated conversations about sustainable alternatives. Formnext, on the other hand, showed us the diverse possibilities and new innovations of industrial 3D printing, especially material combinations. 


At Plastic Free World, the focus was on addressing the downsides of plastics and exploring strategies to minimise their environmental impact. Numerous companies and organisers provided approaches such as the use of bio-based or biodegradable plastics or alternative packaging materials that aim to minimise the use of plastics overall. Discussions also centred on the removal of macroplastics, such as bottles and bags, from the environment. We did not find any approaches to our goal of removing microplastics and were made aware of the importance of developing new filter methods to combat plastic pollution. Moreover, we gained knowledge on the views of sustainability, how companies themselves define sustainable practices, and potential threats of greenwashing - especially in the packaging industry. The majority of companies interviewed focused on either lowering CO2 emissions, compensating for their emissions in various questionable ways (paying a consultancy firm to do necessary external actions for climate compensation), as well as using biodegradeable raw materials (such as corn starch) to produce plastics, and/or combining fossil derived plastic with naturally present materials i.e limestone, creating composites that the companies are yet to find out how to recycle.  


At the same time, the focus at the Formnext conference shifted to industrial applications, in particular the additive manufacturing of metals, plastics and ceramics in combination. While bio-inspired design and production is still in its infancy in this area, the conference provided a platform to explore new perspectives on production and manufacturing possibilities. Furthermore, we gained valuable insights into the developments and efforts towards sustainability in a very energy-intensive industry. 


The synergies between the two conferences became clear as together they contributed to a broader understanding of the challenges and opportunities related to plastics in production. The controversial discussions with representatives of the different perspectives and the new contacts open up further avenues for our projects. In tackling the dual reality of plastics, integrating innovative solutions and cultivating a shared commitment to environmental responsibility are proving to be key issues that will shape the future of production, use and disposal.

- Article written by Kristina Schreiber (University of Groningen) 

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