An innovation from Saxony-Anhalt wins award of the 8th East German Economic Forum (OWF)

Compostable bioplastic Christmas tree netting

meshpack netting solutions GmbH from Klötze in Saxony-Anhalt has been awarded this year’s “Vorsprung” prize for entrepreneurs by the East German Economic Forum on June 11, 2023. Saxony-Anhalt's Minister of Economy, Sven Schulze, and the Managing Director of the Investment and Marketing Corporation Saxony-Anhalt (IMG), Dr. Robert Franke, attended the award ceremony. The company is Germany’s only producer of Christmas tree netting. The plastic used to make the nets can be recycled and returned to the circular economy. In addition, the company has launched a compostable bioplastic net made of maize starch.

"The Altmark company represents the medium-sized business landscape in Saxony-Anhalt. It supports our economy and secures future-proof jobs with its innovative spirit and high adaptability, especially in challenging times like these," congratulated Dr. Robert Franke, Managing Director of IMG, who had proposed the company together with the Minister.

In the middle of summer, Thomas Hartung’s office is strewn with Christmas tree nets. The managing director of meshpack netting solutions GmbH explains that this is in preparation for the Christmas tree trade fair held in August in Denmark. Tree nets are not the first things that spring to mind when you think of Christmas, but without them it would not be possible to transport Christmas trees. “The tighter the trees are wrapped in the nets, the more will fit on a truck. This means fewer trucks on the roads and a reduction in exhaust emissions,” says Thomas Hartung, describing the logical chain of events. There are good reasons why meshpack from Saxony-Anhalt will be exhibiting its products at Europe’s largest trade fair for Christmas trees and decorative greenery. The company from the Altmark district of Saxony-Anhalt is Germany’s only manufacturer of Christmas tree nets. It is a hidden champion with a green footprint.


Decarbonized production

Thomas and Michael Hartung, the owners of meshpack, and their product manager Christian Förster also use invitations to forums and trade fairs for networking purposes. They are on the lookout for like-minded businesses that want to join them on the route to climate-neutral production. The concept of “climate neutrality” takes Thomas Hartung’s mind back to his garden in the Altmark. He is genuinely concerned about the environment. How long will it be before we destroy the natural world? How long will we be able to use our woods, parks and gardens as places to relax and recover? meshpack GmbH aims to make its own contribution to decarbonizing manufacturing. The company has a highly energy-intensive production process and in September 2022 it installed its own in-house photovoltaic system. But Christmas tree nets also pollute the environment. Microplastic particles from the nets make their way into the soil and the groundwater. “Every Christmas tree is packaged twice. The first time is after it has been cut down. Then this packaging is removed so that the end customers can see what the tree looks like and, after this, it is wrapped up again,” explains Hartung. It would be better for the environment if the nets could be disposed of by composting them. For this reason, meshpack has added biodegradable nets made from maize starch to its product portfolio.


Innovation across different sectors

The more expensive bioplastic nets have been on the market for a year. “The demand is related to the level of environmental awareness,” says Hartung and makes the connection to networking, with retailers, discounters and politicians who take the practical problems back to their committees for further discussion. Brothers Thomas and Michael Hartung from the town of Klötze did not imagine that they would end up manufacturing mesh packaging. It seemed more likely that they would take over the heating and plumbing business started by their father in 1980. The two men also had innovative ideas in this area, such as a state-of-the-art dishwasher for commercial kitchens that allows food waste to be reused in a biogas plant.

Their industrial customers included the production plant for packaging nets in the Kusey district of Klötze, which was first owned by an Austrian company and then by a Greek business which intended to close meshpack. The Hartung brothers set out to save the company. This heroic idea, which began as a joke, soon became a serious question: Why not? The brothers have been running the company since 2020 and it currently has 42 employees. Half of their revenue comes from Christmas tree nets – 110 million meters every year – and the other half from fruit and vegetable nets, plant and agricultural netting and nets to provide protection and shade.


Green company philosophy

meshpack GmbH is heavily invested in sustainability and its focus is on the circular economy. The plastic nets are made from polyethylene, also known as PE, which can be recycled several times. This means that plastic nets can be made into new nets, while nets made of maize starch can stay out in the garden and be turned into compost. They take between eight and ten weeks to biodegrade, which is too long for a home compost bin. Thomas Hartung explains that material in a garden compost heap must break down within three to four weeks. This is his development goal and it is the reason why the meshpack partners have joined the BioZ research group. With the help of the Fraunhofer Institute for Microstructure of Materials and Systems IMWS in Halle (Saale) among others, the company is investigating the development of biodegradable bioplastics. The possible uses of these materials offer exciting prospects for all the members of the group.


Green visions

Thomas Hartung invites us to take a guided tour of the production facility. “When the German children’s television program ‘Die Sendung mit der Maus’ wanted to make a piece about the production of a Christmas tree net, they came to us,” he says, highlighting the company’s unique selling point. He shows us the granulate made from maize starch. This is supplied by BASF, which is also working on ultra-modern packaging solutions. The maize granulate is used to produce a biofilm. This has the same properties as a plastic film and can also be processed by the company’s manufacturing machines, which cut the film into thin strips. These are then heated and stretched to produce fibers that are made into nets.

Today, orange-colored films are being processed, possibly to make onion sacks. “In Germany, Christmas tree nets are traditionally white, but in the UK they prefer red and in Italy green,” says Thomas Hartung, who is already processing the first orders. At the end of the process, the tubular nets are packaged in the sizes required by the customers.

Back in his office, Thomas Hartung is preparing for the award ceremony for the Vorsprung prize. In the knowledge that the company’s competitors could soon catch up with it, he and his team have been working on new ideas for some time. What conditions are needed to allow a bioplastic net to be burned without producing pollution? How can the solar energy from the company’s own photovoltaic system be used in precisely those areas of the production process where the energy consumption is very high? Can the fibers be made thinner to reduce material use? ... Alongside the solar farm, the visionary entrepreneurs are also planning to install a storage facility for green hydrogen and charging stations for electric cars on their company site.