Wouter van den Berg
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It happens to Wouter van den Berg, commercial director of The Compound Company, on a regular basis. When someone stands up and claims that plastic has had its day. “I’ve got bad news for you, I always say, it’s only going to increase. But it’s also going to get better.”

Last year, van den Berg extended the contract of the company’s Yparex division with the Brightlands Chemelot Campus. The Compound Company is a Dutch business that manufactures plastic raw materials (granulate) for numerous applications, for example in the construction industry, the automotive industry and for the packaging of meat, fish and cheese. The director himself celebrated his 25th anniversary on campus. After completing his studies in chemistry, he moved from Nijmegen to South Limburg (in The Netherlands) to work for DSM. One of his first big jobs, 23 years ago, involved a new innovation: the recycling of carpets. “We were way ahead of our time and built a factory in America that closed down within two years. That was a real blow. Nowadays, everyone is clamoring for recycling, but back then it was difficult.”

Eventually, he became product manager at Yparex, part of DSM. The business was sold but Van den Berg stayed on and convinced the new owner in Enschede to stay on campus in Geleen as well. “I didn’t necessarily want to move; besides, we already had quite a lot of outsourced research here at the time.”

Wouter van den Berg
Wouter van den Berg

Since then, much has changed. Yparex grew and the campus had to break free from what he calls ‘the old DSM mindset.’ “DSM owned everything, almost everyone was used working with each other. Traditions and habits had to be broken down. It was solid but also cumbersome. And it took time before the transformation could be made.”


DSM retreated more and more. New companies and start-ups came along. Then the Brightlands Materials Center arrived, as did CHILL. “This improved accessibility and provided more opportunities to offer research assignments to students. We can manage more ourselves, things have become cheaper and we work together with a lot more different partners. I am not going to buy an electron microscope myself, but they are available here. It is an illusion to think you can do everything on your own, unless you are a very large company. The strength of the team here is that the infrastructure is fairly complete and validated by the industry: if I have an analysis done, I know that there is expertise and experience around, so the chances that something strange will come out of it are slim.”

Also read: Plastic is not the problem, people are the problem’

By now, 125 people work at The Compound Company. Is Van den Berg bothered by the image of plastics? “If I say I’m working in plastics and especially in the marketing and development department, yes, I regularly get into a discussion. ‘Yes, but we don’t want plastics, do we?’ Yes, we all do actually, because that market is still growing. ‘Well, we want to get rid of them,’ is the response then. We are in the food packaging business. It is one of the ways to prevent food waste. And let’s face it: wasting food is the worst thing. So, what is the best way to keep food good for a long time, and to transport it efficiently so that it doesn’t get damaged, rot or whatever on the way? That is, sorry to say, flexible plastic packaging.

He does understand the concerns. “Consumers only see packaging in its final stage, when you take the plastic off and chuck it away. It’s waste, a guilty product. I feel the same way myself. Although sometimes I think: hey what a cool piece of packaging, but that is probably déformation professionnelle – nerdview.. Plastic offers plenty of advantages: it is lightweight, it can take on many different forms and it lasts a long time. It is fantastic until it ends up as waste. But yes, it is also easily blown away, it can wrap itself around anything and get stuck, and it lasts forever and that is unfortunate when it ends up in the environment. Plastic doesn’t belong in the environment, that’s clear, so we have to prevent that from happening. And that is what defines our image problem, I understand that very well. ‘We don’t want plastic’ is too easy to say. There is no alternative. And it is recyclable. In fact, we have to recycle it.”


Still, Wouter van den Berg will not easily forget his adventure with recycling carpets. “Innovation,” he asserts, “is innovation that ultimately leads to business. At Yparex, we’ve done quite a lot of work on bio-based products, and you notice that not everything is immediately snatched up. While I thought: everyone is going to love this! Perhaps they will, but who is going to pay a premium price for it? Perhaps I was a trifle naïve in that regard. It takes a long time for parties to get to the point where they are on board. With all due respect, all those major companies: they do want to go green but they also want to be able to reap the benefits.”

Where sustainability is concerned, the Yparex director sees that the packaging industry has come a long way but still has a very long way to go. “You already have made a lot of progress if we can, for example, green all the potato chip bags in the supermarket. And this year, after fifteen years of fighting, we finally have a refundable deposit on PET bottles. This simple step had been blocked all this time by various lobby groups. Note: not by the plastic manufacturers themselves. After that, the amount of litter dropped tremendously. Which was also predicted, by the way.”

“But look,” he continues. “I’m at a meeting at Brightlands, of all places, and they’ve come up with something new: Earthwater. Sounds good, right? I was totally surprised when I saw that the water was contained in a coated cardboard carton. You stick water in a returnable PET bottle, don’t you? After all, that’s really easy to recycle and via refundable deposits you make sure there’s zero litter. But this? Thick paper, aluminum on the inside. Plasticized, obviously, otherwise it will not work. It’s just a ploy to avoid paying a refundable deposit. Show me one study showing that a PET bottle is less sustainable than one of those hyper-coated milk cartons. – There isn’t! The subject has been at Kassa (a Dutch critical consument TV program, ed.) and now the packers have changed it. It is happening before your eyes. Earthwater! Then you really are playing for the wrong team.”

Platter of fish

Just for the record, Yparex does not make ready-made products, but granules that are then used in packaging. For example, in the plastic covering of a platter of fresh fish. That plastic is a very innovative substance; it is only under a microscope that you can see that it is made up of several layers. 100% plastic is completely recyclable, and so is this foil.

“That’s right,” Van den Berg agrees, “it’s not so easy to recycle, you can’t separate those layers anymore. But mechanically speaking, it’s perfectly recyclable. Because it is a multi-material product, people say: ‘That’s a problem, shouldn’t there be an alternative?’ To be honest, that would be the deathblow for our business. Does that scare me? No. Do I find it frustrating? No. If a better alternative ever comes along, fine. But a bad alternative with a better pitch like Earthwater? No way!”

Solar panels

He is not expecting a major revolution when it comes to packaging materials for meat, fish and cheese. “A lot of new things are being tried out, like a technique to put a coating on fruit. I have nothing against that, but as a consumer I think: I’m not going to bite into that one easily. If there is to be a revolution, it will be all about eliminating excessive packaging. If you really want to make progress, you need to drive thousands of trucks through the streets of Jakarta to pick up all the litter from the streets. That would help.”

He considers the image of plastic to be ‘quite a challenge’. “Plastic packaging really fires everyone up. We all have an opinion on it. But let’s not forget that most of our uses for plastic are actually huge and are literally sustainable applications: films designed to keep solar panels working for 25 years, pipes and cladding used in construction that have to remain intact for decades, car parts that have to last 300,000 km. And all these applications have the lowest carbon footprint imaginable.”

Nevertheless, he has to tell his story over and over again to people who say that plastic has had its day. ”I have bad news for you, I then say, ”it’s only going to increase. But it’s also going to get better. People see all these chimneys here and don’t understand that everything that’s made here eventually passes through the hands of the consumer. And it’s an awful lot huh, what is being made here. It is not a job creation scheme. The chimneys are smoking not because we enjoy it but because we make ultra-efficient stuff that we all queue up for.”


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