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Interview with Elfriede Hell, General Manager recycling technology, Starlinger & Co.

Smithers Pira conducted a Q&A sessions with Plastics and Paper in Contact with Foodstuffs 2015 speaker Elfriede Hell from Starlinger & Co., getting a sneak preview into her presentation for the Barcelona event.

Elfriede Hell, General Manager - Recycling Technology, Starlinger & Co.

Elfriede Hell holds an MBA and a degree in mechanical engineering, and has been working in the plastics technology business for over twenty years (of those more than 16 in recycling).

Elfi joined Starlinger in 2004 and heads the Business Unit recycling technology since 2007. She is responsible for the commercial and technical management as well as key accounts, and also deals with OEMs and food-contact issues including close contact with brand-owners. Elfi is a frequent speaker at international recycling conferences and symposia and author of a number of technical articles in the field of plastics recycling.

Smithers Pira: What are your current responsibilities as General Manager of Starlinger & Co. and your background in plastics recycling and food contact materials?

Elfriede Hell: As a GM I manage the business unit ‘recycling technology’ and report directly to the board. Although we had a considerable growth the last years, I am driving a growth strategy as recycling does still offer many opportunities. In that respect, I supervise development and prioritization of new technology projects in order to satisfy what markets require. I am heavily involved in product management, marketing activities and sales, including close contact with OEM and brand-owners. I am managing the HR for the division and coordinate cross-functional activities with the organisation. All of those activities have to be according to the budget.

Smithers Pira: In your opinion, what is the most monumental development to affect the Food Contact Materials industry over recent years and why?

Elfriede Hell: Surely, the food-contact regulation 282/2008 for the EU was essential in the industry. First of course it was since long necessary that all EU countries follow the same rules in that respect (before you had countries allowing rPET in food-contact with different qualities levels, others forbade it and some did not regulate it). rPET, preforms or filled bottles could not easily move within the Union. Now we have the same quality standards (input, process, output, reuse); also other regions start to ask for EU approved material. On the flip side, the industry still struggles with insecurity: first the regulation took years before 2008, then we knew what was required and prepared for it; now we are waiting for the first approvals after the positive opinions of EFSA are published.

With the low resin price allowing only a small gap between virgin and rPET, the margin for recyclers became narrow to non-existent. This is also due to the fact that input material – baled bottles - does not become cheaper. They follow another market not in relation to virgin price fluctuation: collection rate, demand from other industries (fiber) etc.

Fundamentally the opinion of the consumer has changed. When I started in recycling more than a decade ago, producers of preforms would not mention that rPET is used in food-contact; now it is a marketing asset.

Smithers Pira: At the P&P 2015 conference you will be presenting on safety evaluations of recycling process for recycled food contact materials – what are the current barriers to using recycled materials alongside foodstuffs and what action do you feel is necessary to overcome them?

Elfriede Hell: Although I mentioned that use of rPET is generally accepted, it is not so in all markets and for all applications. There is still some insecurity if there is hazard to health. Also there is a subconscious concern that some producers are not applying high standards. Finally, the optical appearance (e.g. haziness) of some containers & bottles with rPET are not like produced with virgin; reason is beyond other things the continuous design of new materials and material mixes not helping the recycling issue.

Stringent rules for quality requirements give the necessary security that rPET in food-contact is safe (in any case, it is safe and that has been proven for many years now). New sorting & washing technologies allow for excellent input material into the extrusion process. Inline quality measurement allows for first class rPET pellets output. Designers for new packaging, packaging structures and materials are aware of the recycling topic and consider end-of-use issues with the packaging.

Smithers Pira: What do you hope the audience will gain from your presentation, or initiatives that it may spark?

Elfriede Hell: I am sure I can transport the idea, that use of rPET in direct food-contact is safe and sound. Also, that consumer appreciate that the bottles they bring to collection are used in a sensible way regionally and not exported. They only need to know about.

Smithers Pira: What progress do you think could have been made in recycled food contact materials regulation in five (to ten) years’ time?

Elfriede Hell: At that time, regulation 282/2008 will be installed and self-understood. The general quality of rPET will be high(er); lower qualities go into other applications. And the use of rPET in food-contact will be standard world-wide.

To find out more about this subject and hear directly from Elfriede Hell, join us at the Pullman Barcelona Skipper Hotel, Spain from 1-4 December 2015 at the Plastics and Paper in Contact with Foodstuffs conference.