Interview with Friedrich Weninger, Managing D...
Interview with Friedrich Weninger, Managing Director Dornbirn GFC/Austrian Fibers Institute

Europe could be the pioneer for a sustainable future

Friedrich Weninger, Managing Director Dornbirn GFC/Austrian Fibers Institute (Source: Dornbirn GFC)
Friedrich Weninger, Managing Director Dornbirn GFC/Austrian Fibers Institute (Source: Dornbirn GFC)

The next Dornbirn GFC Webinar Week will be held from September 15-17, 2021 and offers visitors interactive participation. Discussion sessions, Q&As, break-out sessions, and a virtual meeting point will provide an opportunity for networking and the exchange of information. A virtual exhibition area will also be offered. We asked Friedrich Weninger about the key topics of sustainability and circular economy, as well as about cross-industry innovations.

This year, sustainability and circular economy are again one of the key topics at Dornbirn GFC Webinar Week. Tell us why you put this on the agenda again?

Sustainability & Circular Economy has been a central theme of our congress for more than 6 years. Industrialization and the permanent growth of consumption resulted in an enormous use and finally waste of resources. Imagine that of 113 million tons of fiber consumption per year, more than 70 million tons end up in the global landfill - that's a frightening development and not sustainable at all. To make the fiber/textile industry more sustainable and circular, we need to fill many technological gaps – there is not “only one” solution. We offer that at our congress. Fortunately, the “Green Deal” from the EU Commission is putting pressure to promote change - I appreciate this step as a source of inspiration, Europe could be the pioneer for a sustainable future for our next generations!

Another topic during this year Dornbirn GFC will be cross-industry innovation: packaging. What could be the synergies with the packaging industry?

There are many synergies but just to name a few:

  • feedstock – basically the same raw materials (synthetics or cellulosics) are used in both industries
  • process technologies – one would not expect what fiber processing could learn from packaging processing and vice versa
  • applications – think of packaging nets or agricultural applications, both industries are involved

And, of course, circular economy – the packaging industry is very advanced in this area, the fiber industry is at the beginning and could benefit from the packaging experience curve.

The trend in raw materials is moving toward bio-based materials, and away from petroleum-based materials. Is this change also possible for the entire man-made fibers industry over the next 20-30 years?

There is a trend towards bio-based/renewable raw materials, but replacing the synthetic fibers with a share of 65% is hardly visible. If one only speaks of natural fibers, and the by far biggest player cotton with a share of meanwhile only 22%, it is impossible to increase production significantly with such strong competition for agricultural land and water – food production must have priority!

All of this without taking into account performance criteria that cannot be achieved in certain applications without the use of synthetic fibers.

In my opinion there are only 2 ways to solve the problem:

Consumption reduction, which is hardly conceivable with the growth in the emerging countries and/or circular economy, which has an enormous leverage!

When we see recycling of petroleum-based materials it is quite manageable in many cases, just look at the development in PET bottles for polyester fiber – a well-established industry that is now scalable. The problem is and will be the availability of the bottle flakes! Maybe we can manage 5 to 6 million tons which represents 5% of total consumption, but this is not the final solution. We need all technologies to manage “fiber to fiber recycling”, “bottle to fiber” restricts!

In this area, which we are focusing on at our congress, excellent technologies are now in use or development – take a look at the circular economy and machines section.

Waste will be one of the most important raw material flows in the future and this can represent enormous potential for the first movers in the industry.

What will be the biggest challenges for the man-made fibers industry after the corona pandemic?

We see and learn that the global supply chain is very vulnerable to situations like corona and this may not be the only one in the future. Our reliance on key materials and key products from certain countries taught us a lesson. “Near shoring” instead of “Off Shoring” will come back into focus – “Off Shoring/Global Shoring” only because the use of unfair labor cost differences or environmental cost differences is the wrong strategy.

The Green Deal should be seen as a new way to revitalize European industry and the circular economy is a good new business model for the fiber industry, but it requires new thinking and acting - from traditionally linear to future circular.

This year, the GFC will also be held online. How is the event organized? Will this be the future? Will online events replace face-to-face trade shows and conferences?

This year we have acquired a very interactive platform that offers the possibility of holding up to 100 lectures in 2 lecture halls – and this is how the Dornbirn GFC positions itself, you can choose from a large number of high-quality scientific lectures from academia and industry. To improve networking, we also have an exhibition area and various tools to bring people together – everyone will be surprised!

Fortunately, online events will by no means replace face-to-face events, but online events are a new way of interaction and communication which will be crucial to the global reach of our congress.

Nevertheless, the Dornbirn GFC community is looking forward to meeting in person again – we hear that from all sides, obviously there is something beyond virtuality!

The interview was conducted by Mechthild Maas, editor of TextileTechnology.

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