THE URGE FOR CHANGE
Across the world, plastics make up 85% of all marine litter. In addition to the oceans, micro-plastics are accumulating in the air, water and food. The health impacts on humans are still unknown. Tackling the problem of plastic waste has risen to the top of the agenda in the EU – and the EU is undertaking numerous initiatives to accelerate the transition to a circular economy and to promote bioeconomy.
This means new opportunities are opening up for bio-based innovations, competitiveness and job creation for companies throughout Europe, including Metsä Fibre, which is a frontrunner in sustainability and the circular economy.
According to Jyrki Suominen, Senior Expert, Deputy Head of the Bioeconomy Strategy Unit for the European Commission’s Directorate-General for Research and Innovation, “Plastics is a very important topic for the current Commission. In January 2018, the Commission published the first-ever Europe-wide strategy on plastics, aimed at protecting the environment from plastic pollution, while fostering growth and innovation. This turns a big challenge into a positive agenda for the future of Europe.”
In May 2018, the Commission proposed new EU-wide rules to target the ten single-use plastic products most often found on European beaches and in the seas. The commission proposes a ban on single-use plastic products, such as plastic cutlery, plates and straws, where alternatives are available and affordable. Recyclable products made of renewable raw material from sustainably managed sources are a good alternative to replace fossil-based products.
BIO-BASED CIRCULAR ECONOMY IN PRACTICE
“At the moment, global consumption of plastics is increasing. Therefore, focus must be shifted to recyclable products made of renewable materials from sustainable sources. This way, the bio-based circular economy can become a reality and the use of fossil-based materials, such as plastics, can be reduced,” comments Päivi Makkonen, Vice President, Sustainability Metsä Group.
Makkonen leads sustainability at Metsä Group, where all operations are based on efficient circulation as well as a wise, long-term resource use. “Our roots lie in Northern European forests that grow more wood than is used. More than ever, renewable raw materials are a key asset in the global market. We always know the origin of our wood, and over 90% of the wood we use is certified. Wood is a highly versatile material, which in many ways replaces the use of plastics and other fossil raw materials – and its potential for new innovations is enormous,” she says.
Metsä Fibre, a part of Metsä Group, has promoted sustainability and the circular economy, especially with its investments in recent years. The new bioproduct mill in Äänekoski, Finland, is a flagship for industrial ecosystems, as its concept utilises 100% of its production side streams with partners. The mill reached its nominal capacity in August 2018, and at the moment, operates within an industrial ecosystem of 15 partners. This number most likely will increase – in pace with new, upcoming innovations.
Metsä Fibre’s bioproduct mill in Äänekoski produces a broad range of bioproducts besides pulp and biochemicals. The mill generates 2.4 times the electricity it needs for its own processes. Fossil emissions are zero, as it uses no fossil fuels. Metsä Fibre is an ideal example of industrial symbiosis put into practice on a large scale.
“We are eager to continue our work for a better future, partnering with customers and suppliers, using renewable resources, offering sustainable product choices, practicing sustainable forest management and certification, further improving our performance regarding the climate and environment, and generally enhancing well-being,” Makkonen continues.
“The scope of sustainability is widening all the time,” she says, “Therefore, we carefully listen to our stakeholders, which put new topics and needs on our agenda. Thanks to the active dialogue, Metsä Fibre through its partners offer alternatives for the use of plastics, for example in food packaging, interior design and personal hygiene – to name a few.”
And it is not only about replacing the use of plastics, but also cotton and oil-based textiles, for example. Metsä Group’s innovation company Metsä Spring Ltd. and Japanese Itochu Corporation have established a joint venture, which will invest approximately EUR 40 million in building and operating a test plant, with the aim to demonstrate a new technology for converting paper-grade pulp into textile fibres. The new technology is estimated to be more environmentally friendly than the textile fibre production technologies currently in use.
EUROPEANS STRONGLY IN FAVOUR OF CHANGE
A public consultation on single-use plastics showed 98.5% of the respondents felt action to tackle plastic marine debris is necessary. More than 70% of manufacturers and 80% of brands and recyclers considered action necessary and urgent.
Still, the overall reuse and recycling of end-of-life plastics is very low, especially in comparison with materials like glass, paper and metals. Less than 30% of plastic waste in the EU is collected for recycling.
“That’s why a lot of progress needs to be made, including the development of alternatives for plastic products,” Jyrki Suominen emphasizes.
THINK TANKS TACKLE CHANGE
Annika Hedberg, Senior Policy Analyst at the European Policy Centre, one of the largest think tanks in Brussels, leads the Sustainable Prosperity for Europe Programme. Their mission is to work towards a cleaner, smarter Europe.
She states, “The initiative around banning plastics has gained a lot of traction in the European Union. People have awakened and have an appetite for change. What we need now is a strong vision and a way to implement the change efficiently for the long term.”
She goes on to say that public pressure is now stronger than ever before in pushing for a circular economy. “We are seeing a growing interest to shift from a linear ‘take-make-dispose’ economy to a Circular Economy, which builds on smarter use of existing resources and puts greater emphasis on reuse, recycling and regeneration. Our goal is to create awareness around the related possibilities, challenges and measures needed.”
In her opinion, Finland can provide an important contribution to the Circular Economy discussion from the bioeconomy perspective. In Europe, the linkages between bioeconomy and circular economy are not always fully understood.
INNOVATION BRINGS SOLUTIONS
Hedberg, Makkonen and Suominen all agree that innovation is what will drive success in this vital change. Innovation is key to the transformation towards sustainable circular economy. And this needs engagement and actions on a wide front.
This is now happening throughout Europe. “However,” says Suominen, “innovations turn into real game changers only when they result in real improvements. This requires strategies and systemic changes that cut across different sectors, transforming opportunities from all types of innovation into market creation and new jobs. Maximising the impact of EU research and innovation is key in this respect.”
Hedberg continues, “If the European Union is successful in its initiatives to regulate plastic production and cut back on waste from single-use plastic, this will have international implications. In Brussels, we’re hopeful that Europe can show the way beyond the EU, turning our challenges into new opportunities for new products, new jobs, smarter business – and a greener future for all.”