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The Independent Automotive Aftermarket Federation

Corteco: Design for sustainability

Date: Thursday 28 April 2022

Plastic has a somewhat tarnished reputation. But not all plastic is made equal. Single-use products that land in the trash after just a few minutes are, of course, harmful to the environment. Yet no-one would object to an operating table made of easy-to-clean plastic that stands in an operating theater for years on end. The same principle applies to cleaning tools and equipment. “We look at the entire lifecycle of a product,” says Norbert Weis, Head of Consumer Development at Freudenberg Home and Cleaning Solutions. “A product with a four-year lifecycle has a considerably lower carbon footprint than a single-use one.”

Design is the defining factor here. Long before the manufacture of a product, Weis is already thinking about its look and asking how best to put it together. He carefully considers the features and the materials that are needed. The research and development expert is one of roughly 70 employees in R&D. For the expert, design is more than mere functionality: “We design for sustainability,” he says.

“There are enormous differences between recycling materials. How easy the material is to recycle, whether you can collect and sort it and then bring it back into circulation,” says Weis. This is why Freudenberg’s Vileda brand often uses thermoplastic polypropylene. And it’s also why since the 1990s the brand has avoided using questionable materials such as PVC. Often containing harmful plasticizers, PVC releases toxic fumes when incinerated. So, instead of PVC, for more than a decade broom bristles have also been made from a more suitable plastic – namely PET: “We tap into our network at Freudenberg and benefit from the Group’s knowhow in spunbond materials.” Microfiber cloths made of 100% recycled PET that have the same performance standards were also recently launched on the market.

Freudenberg, for instance, has changed the material composition of the “Mocio” mop’s foil packaging. “The previous packaging was difficult to recycle,” says Weis: “In total, we accumulated 39 tons of material in a year.” The material now used, made of LDPE 30 micron foil, reduces both mass and weight to 22 tons – and, being a mono-material, is easier to recycle. A very impressive example of the enormous positive impact materials can have. As part of its commitment with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Freudenberg has also made a public announcement of its intention to make greater use of mono-materials.

When it comes to sustainability, packaging is equally important: “Currently, we’re switching to polyethylene foil because it’s even better for reuse in global recycling systems,” says Weis. Consumers and retailers are now more aware and specifically ask for sustainable packaging. “We set ourselves the goal of producing half of our packaging from recycled material by 2025,” says Weis. By 2025 at the latest, all packaging should then be recyclable, reusable or compostable.

Since recycled materials are only useful if they are actually contamination-free, homogeneous materials are also key. “Polyethylene, for example, mustn’t contain any PVC waste, which is exactly what we don't want in it for a good reason.” The more skilled at identifying and sorting raw materials the recycling plants become, the more worthwhile it is to zero in on certain materials.