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Finnish packaging innovations guide the transformation towards a fully circular economy

assistant professor leaning on a wall

Assistant professor Luana Dessbesell states that the potential of bio-based packaging is huge but the sector is at an early stage. PHOTO by Kristina Tsvetkova

For the world to move towards a truly circular economy, that is, an economy where all the resources are kept in closed loops instead of being discarded, rethinking packaging is among the key priorities.

In the EU alone, packaging accounts for more than third of all municipal waste. On the global scale, the problem is of course much bigger. Nearly half of all the plastic that we produce ends up being used in packaging, and most of it, more than 90 percent in fact, is discarded after use. That’s because the packaging industry is still by and large built on a linear model where packaging is produced, used and then disposed of.

Fortunately, more and more societies have woken up the fact that this linear model needs to be replaced with a circular one. In the EU, the Commission wants 70 percent of all packaging waste recycled by the end of the decade. The move towards circular packaging requires not only more recycling but also new, more sustainable packaging materials.

Finland is leading the way when it comes to using bio-based materials for packaging, and several Finnish companies are doing groundbreaking work in the sector. Companies like Woodly, Sulapac, Paptic, and Muoto have developed bio-based materials that mimic the properties of fossil-based plastic, while companies
such as Fiberwood and Boreal Bioproducts have developed biomaterials that can replace fossil-based materials such as styrofoam, bubble wrap and barrier coatings.

A good start with room to improve

Luana Dessbesell is an Assistant Professor in Sustainable Bioproduct Innovations at Aalto University’s Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems. She is impressed by Finnish expertise on bio-based packaging. “Finland understands both sustainable forestry management as well as the material science, in addition to being a global materials and technology supplier,” she says.

However, it is not enough to have the technical knowhow of how bio-based packaging can replace plastics. “In terms of functionality alone, we are already there in many ways, but the companies need to be able to produce at a commercially viable and value-adding scale,” she notes. This is still, according to Dessbesell, at least a decade away.

“Everyone knows that the business opportunities in sustainable bio-based packaging are immense, but the sector is still at a relatively early stage,” she says. Technically, for instance, in order to move to a truly circular economy, scientists need to figure out how to keep high quality fibres in the closed loop. “We can already recycle and reuse cardboard, but in the recycling loops that already exist, the fibre structure gets damaged and virgin fibre needs to be inserted back into the loop,” Dessbesell says.

Another challenge is producing coatings and barriers that withstand materials such as oil and grease in a sustainable way. “For the most part, we are still on the lab scale, which is expensive and not competitive with non-sustainable alternatives.” In addition to more technical innovation, we also need more infrastructure such as recycling facilities.

Fossil industry fights back

Another challenge is that the fossil industry has a lot of lobbying power and resources, and has managed to water down key regulatory frameworks such as EU’s Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (read more about this here).

“The fossil industry had a strong presence at last year’s COP28 in Dubai, for instance. That is not helping, as they are there to slow down the phasing out of fossil resources.,” Dessbesell believes.

Last but not least, despite the business potential, the biomaterial packaging innovators often find it difficult to secure the necessary funding to scale up. As with all deep tech, the return-on-investment time horizon is long, and investors looking for quick profits will be left empty handed.

“A lot of the investors still don’t see the business potential,” she laments. Dessbesell’s advise for emerging companies in the sector is to integrate commercial thinking into the process from the onset. “It’s not enough to have solid science, you need a convincing value proposition too,” she believes.

The need for more sustainable solutions is all the more pressing given the growth of the packaging sector.

Megatrends such as the growth of e-commerce and food deliveries continue to boost the need for more packaging, and the packaging market has already surpassed one trillion euros in size. This is a major challenge on the road toward a truly circular economy, but for those companies able to offer commercially viable circular solutions, an unprecedented business opportunity too.

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