Mainz, Germany. “With his comprehensive corporate sustainability strategy and high level of personal dedication, Reinhard Schneider has paved the way for environmental standards to be established at an ever-higher standard across an entire economic sector. He has consistently ensured that green products appeal to the majority of consumers on the mass market, pursued sustainability in all of his corporate decision-making and, in this way, earned the trust of the consumer.” – Today, with this statement, Alexander Bonde, General Secretary of the German Environmental Foundation (DBU), announced that the German Environmental Prize 2019 would be awarded to the owner of Werner & Mertz (Mainz), Reinhard Schneider (51). German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will present him with the award on 27 October 2019 in Mannheim. Schneider’s award amount: EUR 250.000.
Breaking new ground as an ‘entrepreneurial pioneer’
Bonde pointed out that Schneider, CEO of Werner & Mertz since 2000, is the fifth generation to manage the owner-run family company and has made sustainability management a top-level issue that is firmly anchored in the company’s strategy. With countless initiatives for environmental protection and sustainable development, he has broken new ground as an ‘entrepreneurial pioneer’: consistent recycling of used plastics, for example from household recycling, for new packaging, printing labels in an environmentally- and health-friendly manner, using plant oils sourced from Europe rather than controversial palm kernel oil or coconut oil from tropical regions for laundry detergent and cleaning products, voluntarily subjecting the company to environmental audits in accordance with the guidelines of the European Union – the approach to sustainability pursued by the company is “visible on a national and international level”, says Bonde. Furthermore, it is also embodied in the company headquarters that opened in Mainz in 2010: thanks to solar panels, wind turbines and geothermal energy, the building generates more power than it needs for heating and cooling.
Plastic recycling in a closed circuit is top priority
Inspired by the realisation that it is better to keep recycling plastic over and over again rather than having it end up in the ocean after a single use or seeing it burnt, which in turn releases climate-damaging carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, the fight to create a closed-cycle energy-saving plastic recycling process has become a matter near and dear to Schneider’s heart. He knows that it takes plastic hundreds of years to decompose – what effects these microparticles will have on humans and the environment still remains to be seen. He refuses to accept the fact that just a small percentage of the plastics from household recycling is actually mechanically recycled – and when it is, then only to make simple products such as window boxes, benches and boundary posts, while the rest is used as an inexpensive replacement fuel in regional waste-to-energy plants, which are often oversized.
Use of high-quality recycled plastics protects the environment
Despite recycled plastic having up to 20 percent higher production costs compared to new plastic, Schneider launched a recycling initiative in 2012 together with partners from the fields of industry, retail and NGOs. He intentionally made an effort not to shut his company off from other companies or to hoard his knowledge for himself. Bonde: “Everyone can use and further develop this process in order to quickly increase the number of recycling products they offer and establish these products on the mass market. This acts as an important starting point for finding a solution to the plastics problem.” And that is important because, according to a recent study carried out by the Fraunhofer Institute for Environmental, Safety, and Energy Technology, investments in plastic recycling in particular pay off in the long term. According to the scientists’ calculations, the use of high-quality recycled plastics reduces the amount of greenhouse gas emissions by more than 50 percent compared to the use of new plastic granulate made from crude oil.
One of the world’s largest recycled bottle production facilities
Around 293 million bottles made solely of recycled plastic – including caps – have been sold and, since July of this year, have rolled off the conveyor belt of the company’s new production facility, which itself complies with strict sustainability requirements. The building itself is equipped with photovoltaic systems for power generation and charging stations for electric cars, and was built, in part, using recycled concrete. Bonde: “In this way, Schneider was able to build one of the world’s largest recycled bottle production facilities with his medium-sized company.” Because recycled plastic from household recycling collection is around 20 percent more expensive than plastic made from crude oil, costly processing equipment only yields a profit over the long term given sufficient utilisation. Comprehensive recycling at a consistently high level of quality can only be ensured when other manufacturers join in. Bonde: “Recycled materials are not worth less, but rather are just as good as new – that’s something that not everyone is aware of yet.”
Initiatives “will be both ecologically and economically beneficial in the long term”
To get the complete picture of this ‘pioneer of the circular economy’, it is important to note that Schneider has also used regional plant-based oils as the raw material basis for all of the products that fall under the “Frosch” brand since 2013, and that the company stopped using substances obtained from crude oil all the way back in 1986. Oils obtained from flax, hemp or olives in Europe are replacing alternatives from palm kernel oil from tropical regions, which are bad for the environment. Even though, as an entrepreneur who manufactures laundry detergent and cleaning products, he is working in a “difficult ecological environment,” according to Bonde, Schneider embodies “the medium-sized company owner with the right attitude” who “demonstrates his commitment to environmental protection with a clear and consistent approach.” Bonde: “The initiatives that Schneider has launched demonstrate that there is another way – and will be beneficial in the long term both ecologically and economically.”