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By their very nature, certain processes of renewal are bound to occur in endless cycles. The recycling of plastics is gaining significant momentum thanks to the Dresden-based startup HolyPoly.

By Markus Hieke

Startup HolyPoly in collaboration with NUK
Startup HolyPoly in collaboration with NUK: Used baby bottles were crushed into plastic pellets and then recycled into sand toys.

The environmental impact of the use of synthetic materials is on a par with other catastrophes forecast by scientists: We’ve known about it for decades. But decisive action has been lost in contradictions and half-hearted measures. Meanwhile, the amount of plastic products and packaging for everyday items and food continues to grow every year – as does plastic waste, which is expected to reach nearly 5.7 million tonnes nationwide by 2021. It is absurd that we continue to use virgin oil resources for a range of polymers that are easily recyclable.

Even though recycling rates are increasing: The industry, and therefore the product and packaging designers, still face a challenge that requires a change of approach. That is, to think more about the end-life of consumer goods, household and craft appliances, furniture and other furnishings. An end-of-life that does not simply consist, as it does today, of the incineration of almost two thirds of the plastic material used.

Changing the Way Recycled looks

For HolyPoly, a German start-up based in Dresden, eco-friendly packaging does not mean abandoning PP, PE, PET and similar materials altogether, but rather rethinking plastic recyclates, which can now be recovered through waste recycling systems in many countries, away from the image of a second-class and more expensive raw material. Therein lies the problem: using virgin plastics is still a cheaper option for manufacturers than their recycled counterparts.  The cost of recycling is then passed on to the consumer. 

Although HolyPoly will not be able to change this in the short term. What’s exciting about their work, however, is that the team is working on several fronts at once: as consultants for brands that want to go beyond a green veneer, as circular economy experts, as materials researchers, and as campaign initiators who get as close as possible to consumers to raise awareness and educate them.

A project carried out in 2022 in collaboration with NUK, the brand for baby bottles, cups and pacifiers, illustrates what this kind of support can look like. The company was faced with the challenge of integrating a high-quality product range with a relatively short shelf life. As the regulatory requirements for such feeding products are very high, a one-to-one cycle was not an option. Instead, an extended end-of-life solution was developed: In just two and a half months, the HolyPoly team developed a take-back campaign, including objectives, costs and implementation planning. The idea for an attractive recycling product was born, along with a storyline and the creation of the ‘Schnullermonster’ mascot.

As a reward for participation, colourful sets of dinosaur sand moulds were promised to be raffled among all participating children. Over an initial ten-month period, almost three tonnes of used plastic baby bottles, dummies and cups were collected in bins set up in nurseries and drugstores across Germany. Alternatively, free parcel labels could be ordered from NUK. It did not matter where the used products came from. HolyPoly then pre-sorted the toys by colour and polymer type, produced recyclates in four colours which were carefully combined, and after testing the toys for chemical and mechanical safety, produced the corresponding sand moulds. The huge success of the campaign surprised even NUK. The dummy monster’s message of the recycling principle was well received by parents and children alike. Since then, the campaign has been repeated and extended to the Austrian market.

These sand moulds are the central promise of the “Schnullermonster” campaign

The Emphasis is on High Quality

Why is this effort worthwhile for what is ultimately such a small proportion of the total plastic waste generated? “Many companies have realised how important industrial recycling solutions are. They realise that a global plastic recycling rate of just ten per cent is far too low,” says the start-up. Matthias Röder, co-founder and Head of Marketing at HolyPoly, explains: “Our goal is to convert one million tonnes of high-quality recyclate into new plastic applications by 2030 through projects with our customers.” This target sounds ambitious, as it would correspond to a good sixth of the amount of plastic waste produced in Germany every year.

The emphasis is also on high quality. “By this, we basically mean that we look less at the waste and then ask ourselves what else can be made from it. Instead, we look at the individual product and try to develop the respective cycle for it,” says Matthias Röder. In this way, the start-up and ultimately its customers should be able to keep cleanly classifiable materials in the material flow. At HolyPoly, a team of more than 30 people from the fields of plastics technology, recycling, chemistry, IT, design, communication, law, logistics, consulting and sustainability are currently working on the desired recycling processes. They recently received financial backing from a crowdinvesting campaign, which provided them with development capital totalling EUR 990,850 in January 2024. Part of the investment will be used to expand the team, as the start-up is already receiving more project enquiries than it can handle.

Colour-sorted plastic waste is first turned into granulate and then into the sand toy that HolyPoly has developed in collaboration with NUK.

Detailed Work in the Laboratory

In addition to NUK, the team is currently working with other well-known brands. On behalf of Bosch, for example, the team is analysing the feasibility of manufacturing power tools using recycled plastics and then supporting this on a large scale. “An important part of our work is to find suitable recycled materials that can replace virgin plastics – especially when we are talking about high safety standards for the end products, as required by Bosch,” reports Stephanie Missner, an experienced plastics engineer and expert in material development and sourcing at HolyPoly.

“We look to see whether there is already a material stream that would be suitable for the desired application. We then analyse mechanical-technological properties, aspects such as strength or media resistance, for example the influence of cleaning agents or hand perspiration on a material. In close cooperation with specialised laboratories, we also test in accordance with numerous existing DIN standards.” At the same time, certain design issues come into play. For example, whether deviating properties from the previous new material need to be compensated for by wall thicknesses. And finally, it will also be a question of whether the appliance should bear the well-known brand colour – which would mean an enormous sorting effort – or whether the sustainable approach should not be expressed precisely in the significant colour, which conveys the claim of recyclability.

High Standards for the Fashion and Consumer Segment

HolyPoly has already proven its relevance in the fashion and lifestyle sector in collaboration with the sustainable bag and rucksack label Got Bag: with buckles made from 100 per cent recycled plastic, including parts of the brand’s own “Ocean Impact Plastics”. Of course, there are also interior brands outside the world of HolyPoly that offer furniture made from recycled plastics: Magis from Italy, for example, with the “RE” series made from polylaminates and food packaging. Or currently Vitra with a new edition of the famous “Eames Plastic Chairs” made from recycled polypropylene, which is obtained from household packaging waste, with the addition of the syllable “RE”. However, a piece of furniture may be a comparatively grateful application when compared to the high standards in the toy sector or for technical devices.

What makes the Dresden start-up unique so far is that it treats recycled plastic like technical plastics, as Stephanie Missner summarises. In addition to the communicative work, material properties are tested and important characteristic values are recorded. The aim is also to provide increasingly consistent material qualities. In the long term, this will counteract the prevailing fear of contact, both on the part of the brands and their designers and from the consumer’s point of view. 

The HolyPoly office in Dresden radiates the self-proclaimed claim to sustainability: untreated furniture made of multiplex along with monobloc chairs (“Bell Chair”) by Konstantin Grcic made of recycled polypropylene.

Colour-sorted plastic granulate – plastic waste as material for the colourful sand moulds.

In collaboration with Got Bag, backpack buckles were created that are made from one hundred per cent recycled plastic.

The colourful sand moulds from NUK’s “Schnullermonster” campaign.

Attention-grabbing collecting containers for used baby bottles and soothers in day-care facilities and pharmacies.

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