Andreas Veltjens, Plant Manager of the company ALBA Recycling GmbH, stands in a huge hall and tries to speak loud enough while the machines are roaring in the background. All around him, extruders turn plastic waste into high-quality recycled materials — what was a yoghurt cup, packaging film or a bottle of cleaning agent just yesterday can start a new life as a recycled product tomorrow. Thanks to the plant’s high quality standards the new products do not have to hide from their newly produced competitors.
“We have the ability to modify our raw materials. This means that we produce recycled materials with specific properties that are based on our customers’ wishes. We also have our own product portfolio,” says Veltjens. The Alba plant in Eisenhüttenstadt has been recycling plastic waste since 1993. Every year 50,000 tons of plastic are recycled and turned into high-quality recycled materials. Today, the plant has 85 employees. Over the years it has invested more than EUR 50 million into new equipment and the development of new production processes.
“The location here in Brandenburg is very good and from a logistical point of view we are very well connected thanks to our proximity to the greater Berlin area and the nearby motorway,” says Veltjens. The neighbouring urban area of Berlin prevents a shortage of raw materials at the plant. “In addition, we have been here for almost 26 years—which means that we have motivated and qualified employees with the necessary expertise,” stresses Veltjens. However, he is also concerned about the shortage of skilled employees because he needs well-trained and experienced employees for the demanding work with the raw materials. “We can’t just pick up people on the street and start right away; we have to train them and provide them with the appropriate qualifications,” he explains.
His employees operate huge machines with only a few buttons on the outside, which do not give the slightest indication as to what is happening on the inside. “A good understanding of the properties and material behaviour of plastics is indispensable,” points out Veltjens. After all, it’s not just a matter of separating the waste as diligently as possible by type and processing and turning it into recycled materials that look like new. The reprocessed material must also meet high standards with regard to its resilience and durability. The slightest deviation during its processing has an impact on the material’s properties.
All of the results are then tested in the plant’s adjacent laboratory. The recycled materials are tested in terms of their tensile and impact strength. “What looks like a violent act is, in fact, incredibly important for the customer,” emphasises Veltjens, “Every day we have to prove that our end products are in no way inferior to the quality of so-called primary raw materials.” Without these high-quality standards, recycled materials cannot prevail in the long term. Bias still exists towards plastics made out of recycled materials.
But Veltjens and his colleagues believe in their mission. “For a long time, the plastics sector has only been producing new products that are practically indestructible and which therefore accumulate more and more in the environment,” says Veltjens, explaining what drives him. “At some point I wondered what we should do with the scraps and excess products.” Even as a consumer he had become increasingly mindful of these issues and so had many colleagues at the plant. “We didn’t want to landfill, nor incinerate. We looked at the business case for the production of recycled materials. And, lo and behold, it is a vast field with a lot of potential for development,” summarises Veltjens