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Shifting to a circular economy for plastics

An interview with TePe's Product Manager

Plastic has its benefits, but also its challenges. We had a talk with Patrik Werius, Product Development Manager at TePe, about the development and future of a debated material.

– Even if we look 20 years ahead, I’m convinced that plastic will still be around. It is simply outstanding in terms of application, weight, quality, and hygiene. This is especially important for products within medical technology. But the linear production of today is becoming outdated. Technical development has started to change the boundaries for what plastic can be, namely, a valuable raw material rather than waste. We’re working on solving these complex issues every day, says Patrik Werius, Product Development Manager at TePe.

 

"Mass balance is one important factor for reaching our goal to become CO₂ neutral in products and packaging by 2022."

Patrik Werius, Product Development Manager at TePe

What’s been decisive in TePe’s sustainability journey from your point of view as a product development manager?

– TePe’s LCA (life cycle assessment), which calculates the environmental impact of our product and packaging materials, has been key in the development process. Our LCA specifically pointed out materials and product end of life as areas of improvement, besides transport and resource management. Materials were the natural starting point for my team since it’s an area where we can have a direct impact. So, we decided to take on the challenge of phasing out fossil materials from our production.

And then you chose bioplastic made from sugar cane as your sustainable option?

– Yes, because sugar cane has been the most available sustainable material so far. But all kinds of biomass, such as food waste, algae and agricultural by-products, can be converted into monomers, which is the building blocks of polymer, i.e., plastic. A way of gradually making plastic more sustainable is to use a mass balance approach, which means that you add tall oil or other biomass polymers into the mix during production. Mass balance is one important factor for reaching our goal to become CO₂ neutral in products and packaging by 2022.

But bio- and mass balance plastic still doesn’t solve the issue of end of life, that is, what happens to the products after use?

– No, that’s true. Even though our LCA counts with the products being incinerated, which is the worst-case scenario from a global warming perspective, it doesn’t mean that they actually go to incineration. Unfortunately, lots of plastic still end up in the environment. However, the industry is now moving from linear production towards a genuinely circular economy through the introduction of so-called chemical recycling, or upcycling.

What’s so revolutionary about this technique?

– Upcycling allows plastic materials to be recycled on a molecular level, meaning that the plastic polymers are turned back into monomers in order to be processed and used again and again. It can be used for any plastic, whether fossil or biobased, and it doesn’t contribute to global warming in the sense that if no combustion is taking place, no CO₂ will be released into the atmosphere. It’s important, however, to use green energy during the process to make it truly sustainable.

– Another advantage is that it allows items that normally can’t be recycled because of dyes or other additives to have another life, and another, and another – even in food-graded and medical-grade products, such as TePe’s oral health range. In this way, already used plastic items will increasingly become a sought-after raw material.

It sounds very promising. But if the technology exists, why isn’t it implemented already?

– There are several projects within the plastics and recycling industries to make upcycling more widespread. But it will take significant investments, commitments and political initiatives to accelerate the shift.

– I’m still optimistic, though, that the mass balance method of integrating biobased materials into existing systems, in combination with upcycling, will solve the challenging question of end of life. We will have to rethink and re-learn what we know, as producers and consumers, and start seeing waste as a resource instead of just trash that goes to landfill or combustion. Then we can all contribute to the circular economy of plastics.

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