Efforts to reduce the use of plastics are underway worldwide, fuelled by growing awareness of the detrimental impact of plastic waste on marine and other natural ecosystems, the knock-on effects on industries such as fishing and tourism, and regulatory projects to promote recycling and replace plastics with sustainable materials.
It has been estimated that mankind cumulatively produced 8 300 million tonnes of primary plastic between 1950 and 2015, more than 25 times the weight of the entire human population. Over half, or 4 600 million tonnes, of the total was discarded or dumped in landfills and 700 million tonnes incinerated, whereas 2 500 million tonnes remained in use and 500 million tonnes was recycled – although three-fifths of it ended up in landfills after recycling.
With the amount of plastic waste growing globally at an annual clip of 300 million tonnes, the need for answers remains urgent.
The European Union is set to ban the use of single-use plastic products, such as plates, straws, cutlery, packaging and containers, that can be easily and affordably replaced with sustainable alternatives on 3 July 2021, under a directive passed in March 2019. The challenge, and business opportunity, has been embraced also by businesses, including Finland’s Fazer, Kotkamills, Pyroll Packaging and Woodly.
“In conjunction with global trends and legislative initiatives, numerous branches and packaging industries are turning their focus to material solutions replacing plastics,” Markku Hämäläinen, chief executive of Kotkamills, observed on 15 June.
The Kotka-headquartered developer of wood-based products announced the expansion of its family of plastic-free consumer boards with Isla Ice and Isla Cream, two fully recyclable and repulpable boards with water-based barrier coatings that make them suitable for ice cream cups, bowls and containers.
With the former designed as a material for the sidewalls and the latter for the bottoms of containers, the boards can be combined to create a container that provides high hygienic food safety, resistance against grease and moisture.
The solution is one of the first plastic-free and recyclable packaging options for ice cream producers, retailers and consumers.
“As our new ice cream cupstock materials are entirely repulpable, their fibres are easy to reuse up to six times when recycled properly,” highlighted Ari Tanninen, director of consumer boards at Kotkamills. “Therefore the cups function as tools for brands to show that they care about the environment.”
Currently the world’s only industrial producer of plastic-free coated boards, Kotkamills is set to move to the ownership of Austria’s Mayr-Melnhof Karton in mid-2021.
“If it can be made from oil, it can be made from wood”
Marika Ollaranta, head of the bio- and circular economy programme at Business Finland, is not surprised that such innovations are being conceived in Finland. With three-quarters of the land area covered in forests, the country offers raw materials in abundance, deep-rooted forest-industry knowhow and an environment that encourages innovation with wood and its by-products, such as fibre and pulp.
“Compared to other countries, we have our well-kept forests that meet all global forest management standards. As the raw material is also refined here, the packaging innovations are often implementation-ready and fully applicable to the existing production machinery.”
“As the famous saying goes, if it can be made from oil, it can be made from wood.”
Nor is it a surprise that many have set their sights on packaging materials, which make up 62 per cent of all collected plastic waste in Europe.
“The packaging industry is at a turning point where the future of packaging is more versatile, bio-based and recyclable. As countries and companies announce their ambitious CO2 goals, a low level of emissions is a must for new innovations.”
Growth plans uncontained
Kotkamills and Pyroll Packaging, a packaging materials company domiciled in Pyhtää, on 29 April were recognised for their submission for a sustainable food service packaging for Premier League-bound Norwich F.C. with a special mention in New Wood 2021, a competition presenting companies an opportunity to showcase their wood-based innovations.
The competition entries were assessed in terms of their social significance and potential to respond to global challenges and the goals of sustainable development.
Pyroll Packaging reported roughly a week later that its growth prospects at home and abroad have been boosted by an investment from Finland’s MB Funds. The investment will see the almost 50-year-old family-owned company move to the ownership of its management team and the equity investor.
“I have had a long career in the packaging industry, and it is time to move on to a new phase,” said Reino Uusitalo, the founder and board chairperson of Pyroll Group.
Vesa Keränen of MB Funds viewed that Pyroll is well positioned to continue its development due to its systematic work on sustainable packaging materials, knowhow in materials such as aluminium, cardboard and paper, reputation as a trusted partner, and the strong presence provided by its nine manufacturing sites in Finland.
“Pyroll Packaging has successfully built a solid position as a trusted partner for Finnish food industry and retail sectors through long-term customer co-operation. Moreover, the package media unit of Pyroll Packaging has gained a strong position as a pioneer for digital service concepts for brand owners,” he said.
“We are extremely excited to get on board.”
Investors in May also provided a boost to Jospak, a Forssa-based developer of board-based trays and related technology that serves clients in Finland, the Nordics and Central Europe. The company reported it has raised 3.5 million euros in a directed share issue to set up production machines equipped with its new technology, invest in sales home and abroad, ramp up production toward industrial scale, and recruit new personnel.
Jari Stenberg, the board chairperson at Jospak, said expanding the ownership enables the company to take “a giant leap” toward its strategic goal of becoming an international significant contributor to sustainable development.
“Jospak is an interesting company in many respects” noted Casimir von Frenckell, a new shareholder and board member at Jospak.
“I believe that Jospak’s solution meets the challenge, demand and requirements of many different stakeholders, such as consumers, regulators and investors. Jospak has excellent resources to establish and grow sustainable and profitable business activities.”
Packaging for cosmetics, veggies
Quadpack in May revealed it has added a 50-millimetre jar for water-based formulas to its collection of cosmetics jars made of Sulapac, a wood-based biocomposite material developed by Helsinki-based Sulapac. The fully circular jar is suitable for products such as anti-ageing, grooming and moisturising products due to a groundbreaking bio-based barrier solution developed by the Finnish material innovator.
Sulapac is a material made of wood chips from industrial side streams and responsibly sourced plant-based binders, making it industrially compostable and free of harmful microplastics.
“Our drop-in solution material can be mass produced with the existing plastic machinery,” stated Suvi Haimi, CEO of Sulapac. “This makes our beautiful, functional and sustainable Sulapac an appealing alternative for various plastic products.”
Quadpack has also expanded its collection of cosmetics containers made from the innovative material with a 200-millilitre jar for waterless products.
Aalto University, meanwhile, reported this month that four of its students have developed a bio-based liquid that, in the matter of seconds, forms a protective transparent film on cucumbers dipped in it, potentially offering a renewable and biodegradable alternative to the plastic wrap.
The liquid contains a jelly-like, red algae-based substance called agar, carnauba wax dispersion and dispersed cellulose nanocrystals (CNC).
“We went to the lab every week and tested several materials,” recounted Louise Kallai, master’s student in chemical engineering on an exchange at Aalto University. “We came up with the idea of using agar because we had used it for cooking. We added also wax to make a more waterproof film and CNC for its antibacterial properties.”
Kallai and her fellow students believe the liquid and method can be used also for other vegetables and fruits. They will showcase the innovation later this month to an online audience at the Biodesign Challenge Summit, an international event held previously in New York City.
“This is a baby step, but hopefully it’s a beginning of something that could be commercialised and could spark interest in this kind of packaging,” commented Ena Naito, master’s student in contemporary design at Aalto University.
“It also encourages people to question our daily choices.”
Helsinki-based Woodly recently received three million euros for commercialising and internationalising its namesake plastic substitute. The funding, it told, will be used to launch various packaging solutions and products globally to enable companies to trim their carbon footprints.
The wood cellulose-based material has already been used to package rose begonias, textiles and fresh herbs.