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Thursday, May 23, 2024

Look to the forest

Martin Ledwon explores the use of biochemicals as a future path for plastic packaging production

The risks of climate change now need little introduction. We are already starting to live with the impacts of a changing climate on the environment, communities, businesses and supply chains. The ambition to limit global warming to 1.5°C is now hanging by a thread, with voices challenging whether keeping within the 1.5°C trajectory is even still feasible – now making each 0.1°C rise above 1.5°C hugely significant.

With an increasingly narrow window to stabilise climate, it is now incumbent upon major primary industries to take a broader approach to sustainability than solely through decarbonising of energy sources. In addition to championing a truly circular economy, due to its immense responsibility to supply intermediate products to downstream manufacturers, the chemicals industry needs to curb its high dependency on fossil fuel completely. Specifically, this means finding alternative, renewable feedstocks to replace current petroleum-based ones in the production of chemical intermediates.

Often referred to as “renewable carbon”, the alternative feedstock sources available today are from biomass (typically wood, crops, manure, algae, etc.), from carbon capture or from the recycling of materials already used. For the purposes of this discussion, we are focusing on wood. Not only is it one of the most widely available feedstock sources – and, operationally speaking, one of the easiest to directly replace fossil-based sources – its chemical make-up allows for similar or even enhanced performance characteristics to their fossil-based counterparts.

At the root of the problem

In the 1950s the world produced only two million metric tons of plastic products annually. The amount has now risen to more than 400 million metric tons of which around 141 million is diverted to the manufacture of packaging.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, plastics production was responsible for 1.8 billion metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, equating to 3.4 percent of total global GHG emissions –  higher than the aviation sector which comes under significantly more scrutiny.

If the current pace of growth and manner of production continues, plastic packaging’s share of emissions is set to significantly increase. The World Economic Forum estimates that the plastic industry currently accounts for as much as six percent of global oil consumption and is expected to reach 20 percent by mid-century.

But we need to look back through the plastic production value chain, to find the real root of the problem. Producing the many varieties of plastic requires a wide range of chemical additives – and while each has its own special formula, they all come from a base of fossil fuels.

The chemicals system: beginning of the story

The chemical industry generates over $3.5 trillion in revenues annually, representing around four percent of global GDP – roughly equal to the output of Russia, the world’s fourth largest emitting country – and directly employing over 11 million people. But it also accounts for four percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, of which the International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates 75 percent is from the production of large-volume chemical intermediates (e.g. ethylene, propylene, benzene, toluene, ammonia, and methanol).

Specifically, the chemical industry is responsible for the vast number of fossil-based materials to manufacture plastic goods which form a significant part of our modern consumer world – including feedstocks for polyethylene terephthalate (PET), a form of plastic that can be moulded into bottles and packaging for countless food and personal care products. And many would argue that the industry has been slow in its ambition to develop innovative, less CO2-intensive feedstocks for plastic packaging materials.

Look to the forest

Trees are composed of 20-30 percent of lignin, a complex polymer found in the wood cell walls and giving wood its stiffness and resistance to degradation. This valuable compound can serve as raw materials in the production of bio-based chemicals which can be used in the manufacture of man-made fibres, among many other products. Lignin also offers UV and temperature stability, and even enhances moisture resistance, so helping to prevent bacterial and fungal attack. It is these properties that make lignin an ideal bio-based substitute for various petroleum-based products used today.

At UPM Biochemicals’ new state-of-the-art €750 million biorefinery in Leuna, Germany, which is due to become operational in 2024, the company will primarily use beechwood feedstock, from which it will produce 220,000 tonnes of biochemical intermediates annually.

UPM’s beech wood, including branches and off-cuts, are sustainably sourced from certified (FSC/PEFC), locally managed local forests, so neither competes for land for food production, nor requires fertilisers – two of the biggest criticisms of some other bio-feedstocks such as sugarcane. UPM also oversees the responsible planting, growing, harvesting and collection of beech trees, plus the residues and so-called thinnings from sawmill operations – of which around 70 percent normally ends up being incinerated.

It’s from this fully sustainable source that UPM Biochemicals has developed a new generation of renewable bio-based “drop-in” glycols. Mono-ethylene glycols (MEG) which are used extensively in PET resins are vital ingredients in the production of countless types of packaging.

Integration into existing manufacture can be easily implemented because UPM’s bio-glycol, BioPura™, is a molecular like-for-like substitute, enabling a much more sustainably sourced, virgin PET to be manufactured. Ideally, this innovative bio-based PET will be mechanically recycled at the end of life, just as its fossil-based counterparts should be. If it cannot, there is an option for it to be chemically recycled using ‘glycolysis’, with the process requiring additional new bio-based MEG to create new recycled PET. Through integrating BioPura™ as the additional “ingredient” will create a holistic circular economy in the PET value chain.

Conclusion

Wood is one of humanity’s most ancient raw materials but it can also take us into the future.

UPM Biochemicals is at the vanguard of the transition to a circular bioeconomy – where sustainable, renewable production and consumption is the new normal. It is pioneering sustainable chemistry – innovating in chemical processes, scaling biorefining and unlocking the potential of biomass to transform industries.

Replacing fossil and mineral-based materials with wood-based biochemical ingredients will also lock-in carbon sequestered from the atmosphere for the life of the product. This enables us to radically reduce the carbon footprint of materials and provide better, more sustainable choices to consumers.

Martin Ledwon is Vice President Sustainability at UPM Biorefining

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