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Finnish firms make advances in circular, bioeconomy products

Finland’s national bioeconomy strategy has encouraged numerous innovations in bio-based materials, including textiles.

Mikko Törmänen / Business Finland

A circular economy is beginning to take shape particularly for textiles in Finland.

Earlier this year, Nordic Bioproducts Group announced it has succeeded in spinning a new plant-based, toxin-free textile fibre called Norratex.

The Espoo-headquartered startup revealed that the production method consists of two stages: the cost-effective and environment-friendly hydrolysis of cellulose and the processing of the output into the viscose-like fibre. The method, it told, can utilise a variety of raw materials, such as textile waste, ordinary paper pulp and forest industry by-products.

“Succeeding so soon came as a big surprise to our entire team,” revealedVille Nyman, head of research and development at Nordic Bioproducts.

The startup set out to develop a cost-effective and scalable textile fibre manufacturing process in co-operation with Tampere University in 2020, based on a method invented by Olli Dahl, professor at Aalto University. Wet-spinning experiments with the dissolution method started producing promising results only six months after they had begun, in November 2021.

“The seventh spinning experiment really surprised me! The dope was excellent and it did not clog the spinneret during wet spinning,” recounted Maija Järventausta, researcher at Tampere University.

“In the next step, the carding was successful, the fibre withstood opening, curled beautifully and no pilling was formed. Fibre-to-fibre friction was optimal.”

The fibre offers substantial benefits over many existing alternatives. Ordinary viscose is made from dissolving cellulose using toxic carbon disulphide and costs up to 30 per cent more than pulp, whereas cotton is notoriously resource intensive and polyester a major source of microplastic pollution.

Norratex produces a soft and shiny knit. Image: Nordic Bioproducts Group

Nordic Bioproducts in January also said it is starting collaboration with one of the largest pulp producers in the world, CMPC Ventures, the corporate venture arm of CMPC.

“We are very excited about this new collaboration. For CMPC, this represents a significant step toward establishing a leading role in the development of the future of bio-based industries with global impact,” said Bernardita Araya Kleinstauber, manager of CMPC Ventures.

Nordic Bioproducts is hardly the only Finnish company looking to go from rags to riches in the emerging market for sustainable cellulose fibres. Aalto University also had a hand in developing Ioncell, while Infinited Fiber Company, Metsä Spring and Spinnova have all introduced textile fibres made from materials such as wood, agricultural waste and discarded textiles.

Re-thinking a major old industry

Such advances are indications of successful strategic implementation in Finland. The renewal of the forest industry is driven and governed by national climate, energy and bioeconomy strategies, as well as the world’s first circular economy roadmap, reminded Juha Peltomäki, head of bio- and circular industry at Invest in Finland.

“Finland’s 2025 vision is that sustainable bioeconomy solutions will form the basis of welfare and competitiveness,” he stated in January.

Atte Virtanen, director of biomaterial processing and products at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland, believes the country owes much of its position at the cutting edge of biomaterials to a spirit of collaboration. VTT has been one of the most active research partners in the field, supporting the transition to a circular economy by reducing the environmental footprint bio-based materials and extracting more value from the natural bounty of Finland.

While it may be tempting for a company to fully outsource biomaterial innovation to a research organisation, the success of development projects depends on continuing dialogue, reminded Virtanen.

“It doesn’t work that the challenge is thrown out to research companies and the company just waits for a solution,” he stressed.

“The key to success is constant dialogue around how we start resolving the challenge together, and the company has a very important role in challenging and guiding the work that is done and executed by the research company.”

National pool of raw material

The Topinpuisto plant is to start sifting through end-of-life textiles collected from across Finland in 2025. Image: Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto

Lounais-Suomen Jätehuolto (LSJH) in January said Business Finland has awarded it an investment grant of roughly 5.2 million euros for building a full-scale end-of-life textile refinement plant in Topinpuisto, Turku.

The plant will process end-of-life textiles collected from households across the country by local waste management companies, including LSJH in Southwest Finland. The textiles will be sorted by material type on a partly automated processing line, with some designated for reuse and others for mechanical processing into recycled fibre that can be used as raw material for products such as thread, composites, acoustic boards, non-woven fabrics and insulation materials.

Upon the plant’s completion, Finland will become the world’s first country to collect post-consumer textiles nationwide for reuse and recycling, according to Jukka Heikkilä, CEO of LSJH.

“All Finnish municipalities and their waste management companies can equally deliver their post-consumer textiles to the be processed at the Topinpuisto plant,” he said. “Likewise, all businesses have an equal opportunity to use the recycled raw material produced at the refinement plant in the production of their own products.”

“The aim is to have the plant operating in 2025.”

The project will continue with the drafting of an environmental permit application and building plans, with a view to commencing construction in 2023. The 20.5 million-euro plant is estimated to employ roughly 100 people.

The plant will be able to draw on experiences from an industrial-scale pilot line that was opened by LSJH in Paimio, Southwest Finland, in November. End-of-life textiles collected from 10 municipalities in the region are mechanically processed at the line to produce fibres for the various needs of businesses.

“We have already gained a lot of information about what needs to be considered in the construction of the full-scale plant,” told Marko Kokkonen, project manager at LSJH. “Our aim is to create new domestic production chains around the recycling of end-of-life textiles.”

More world-firsts

Koskisen’s Zero furniture board is the first fully wood-based furniture board in the world. Image: Koskisen

At the beginning of the year, Koskisen announced it has created the world’s first fully wood-based furniture board by replacing fossil-based adhesives with NeoLigno, a trademarked bio-based lignin binder developed by Stora Enso. The raw and binding materials are both sourced from the production processes of the two Finnish companies, making the furniture board a completely circular product.

The board is the first member of an upcoming product family called Zero. It is expected to hit the market in the second half of this year, with its first sibling, a plywood board, coming out later.

“These new products allow furniture manufacturers to offer alternatives with better sustainability and health security,” statedTimo Linna, former director of product management and research and development at Koskisen.

CEO Jukka Pahta said the product family aligns with the company’s strategic goal of developing better products in collaboration with partners while taking steps toward a more sustainable and carbon-neutral future with measures such as substituting fossil-based raw materials for renewable ones and optimising the use of wood.

“The Zero product family stands as a concrete action that takes our strategy into everyday reality,” he viewed.

Koskisen is the first company to utilise the lignin binder in industrial production.

Another world-first from Finland is ZM-Grow, a foliar fertiliser produced from recycled batteries by Kärsämäki, North Ostrobothnia-based Tracegrow. The fertiliser is made by crushing, treating and leaching batteries into a mass that is then filtered, purified and finally neutralised to measure around four on the pH scale.

ZM-Grow foliar fertiliser is made from recycled alkaline batteries. Image: Tracegrow / Facebook

Tracegrow in March announced it has secured the certificate required to sell and distribute the fertiliser in California, the US, from the State of California Department of Food and Agriculture (CDFA).

The fertiliser is already distributed in the UK by Hutchinson.

“Put simply, Tracegrow has developed an innovative technology to extract, purify and reuse the zinc and manganese from alkaline batteries – up to 80 per cent of the trace elements found in alkaline batteries can be re-used,” commented Tim Kerr, fertiliser manager at Hutchinson.

“ZM-Grow ticks all the pertinent boxes for sustainability, offers a reduced carbon footprint whilst also providing a high-quality, effective micronutrient foliar fertiliser that meeds a valid need by UK arable growers.”

Hutchinson has trialled and distributed the circular-economy product for the past two seasons, receiving “very good” feedback from growers.

Originally published in March 2022.

By: Aleksi Teivainen