Renewable bio-based plastics offer all the convenience of conventional plastics, but with a greatly reduced carbon footprint.
Plastic use is expected to double in the next 20 years. This growth will stem especially from population growth and higher living standards in China, India and Africa. Meanwhile, in developed markets, per capita plastic usage has levelled off at approximately 80 kg annually. In rapidly developing countries, the corresponding total is currently 10-20 kg.
The first step to solving the global plastic waste problem is building a proper recycling infrastructure, affirms Vesa Kärhä, CEO of the Finnish Plastics Industries Federation. There is also a lot of work to be done also in waste management, attitudes, and in the diligent implementation of existing legislation.
Despite the absence of efficient recycling systems, plastic is still needed: it plays a critical role serving a rapidly urbanising population in applications such as food packaging and health care.
Unnecessary use of plastic should be radically reduced. Recycling solutions, too, need urgent attention. But, in addition, plastic must also be produced more sustainably. One solution is UPM BioVerno naphtha, a renewable plastic raw material made from pulp residue.
Less fossil-based plastics
Kärhä praises bio-based plastics as a good solution. They can be seamlessly woven into existing processes, which means there is a low threshold for their implementation.
“BioVerno and similar raw materials promote responsible plastic usage in a clever way. These solutions produce ‘normal’ plastic, bio-based polyethylene, which requires no changes to existing packaging solutions or food laws. It’s exactly the same raw material, only made without natural gas or oil. This is a key milestone on the road to responsible plastic production,” says Kärhä.
Milk cartons straight from the forest
The best end result is often reached through cross-industry collaboration. In February, UPM Biofuels launched a collaborative project with international dairy corporation Arla, packaging company Elopak, and chemical producers Dow.
As part of the project, UPM supplies wood-based UPM BioVerno naphtha to Dow, who refine it into plastic granules. Norwegian Elopak, which manufactures packaging for Arla, utilises these granules to replace fossil-based raw materials.
“This is an impressive project linking together the food, packaging, chemical and forest industries. Every tonne of plastic produced from wood-based UPM BioVerno naphtha replaces a tonne of plastic produced from fossil-based, non-renewable raw materials,” describes Maiju Helin, Head of Sustainability and Market Development at UPM Biofuels.
The naphtha is produced from crude tall oil, which is a side stream from pulp production. In the first phase, it will replace fossil-based plastic raw materials worth the plastic coating of 40 million cartons based on mass balance. The wood-based plastic used in Arla’s dairy cartons reduces the need for fossil-based plastics by approximately 180,000 kg per year, which is roughly equal to 700,000 plastic buckets. Meanwhile, it decreases the carbon footprint of the packaging by a fifth.
“The new packaging can be recycled along with cardboard just like before. Liquid products such as milk require a thin layer of plastic inside the carton to ensure product safety and preservability. We are all keen to collaborate to introduce a more responsible, eco-friendly,” says Juha Oksanen, Managing Director at Elopak Finland.
The entire raw material chain of UPM BioVerno is certified and its carbon footprint has been verified. The wood comes from sustainably managed forests, the operation of the bioindustry is certified, and the climate benefits have been verified by Elopak in compliance with the ISCC standard. Switching to renewable plastic reduces the carbon footprint of packaging by about 20%.
The world’s first milk cartons coated with wood-based renewable plastic appeared in Finnish stores in February 2019.
This story can be read in its original, full length in the upcoming issue of our stakeholder publication the Biofore Magazine.
Text: Saara Töyssy