Story | 12/16/2020 12:29:15 | 6 min Read time

Confronting the reel packaging plastic challenge

Plastic packaging provides an unparalleled level of water-resistance, but what efforts are being made to reduce the amount of plastic used with bio-based solutions?

UPM Communication Papers has been initiating projects alongside its value chain partners designed to explore and develop solutions that can replace and decrease the amount of plastic used in packaging wherever possible. One of the key partners in recent projects has been Walki Group, whose mission is to accelerate the world’s transition to a Zero Waste Future.

Led by UPM’s cross-functional teams, these sustainability projects may well have the potential to finally challenge an industry standard that has lasted for more than 20 years, without sacrificing the barrier properties of UPM customer deliveries downstream.

Finding solutions together

UPM and Walki have a long history together and in recent years have intensified their strong relationship in terms of business development. “We have tried to utilise the best opportunities to create win-win situations. There’s always good communication and a willingness to work together to find a solution,” says Carlo van Houtum, Vice President Sales & Marketing for Forest at Walki Group.

They have been looking at how to challenge standards that have existed in the marketplace for a long time. One innovative project involved removing the plastic film traditionally used in office paper ream wrappers and successfully replacing it with renewable and responsibly-sourced wood fibres from UPM.

After establishing themselves as a frontrunner with UPM in sustainable ream wrappers, the next standard to challenge was the amount of polyethylene (PE) in reel wrapping laminate. The initial objectives were to replace fossil-based PE with a bio-based feedstock and reduce the PE grammage, as well as guarantee continued high moisture protection for the reels.

“We are trying to optimise material usage and reduce CO2 emissions, but we must ensure that we are also protecting the customer’s product. We don’t want UPM to deliver damaged paper reels to their customers, because that is a far bigger waste of material and damage to the environment,” notes van Houtum.

The steps being taken also support UPM’s 2030 responsibility target to reduce the CO2 emissions of its supply chain by 30 percent, as well as the company’s commitment to the UN Global Compact’s Business Ambition for 1.5°C.  While it’s difficult to estimate the impact without concrete figures, it is thought that full implementation could result in a 400-tonne annual reduction in PE plastic usage, which is the equivalent of 15 to 20 truckloads a year.

Taking the maximum risk

“We started the project at the end of last year but only in a couple of paper mills. We began with a version that replaced standard fossil-based PE with polymers based on crude tall oil—a residue of pulp production from UPM. We tried to search for alternatives to the fossil-based version with the long-term target to avoid any kind of conventional plastic,” emphasises Frank Bruns, Senior Sourcing Manager at UPM.

The other trial reduced the standard PE grammage by a quarter from 20 g/m2 to 15 g/m2 to see whether it would be enough to protect the paper from moisture. After testing, it was agreed that a five gramme reduction was the maximum risk they could take. “If we don’t see any negative impact, then perhaps we could go further during the second step,” suggests Bruns.

Testing has taken up to three months to get results and feedback from the whole supply chain. “The next step is to fully ramp-up production of the 15 g/m² PE and, after that, doublecheck the commercial impact of the tall oil-based version. We have done the tests and we don’t see any major technical difference between the two,” he says.

Future streams will include the use of biocompostable green PE or a coating moisture barrier, such as a dispersion coating, as soon as the products are available. “We’re discussing these with our existing suppliers, as well as potential new ones, because our long-term target is to fully eliminate plastic from our packaging,” adds Bruns.

“We set high sustainability standards throughout the entire lifecycle of our product paper – from responsibly-sourced raw materials to decisive actions that mitigate climate change. As one of the world's biggest producers of graphic paper, we realise that our future business depends on sustainability. This is why our commitment can be seen throughout the whole value chain of our products. We are constantly working to deliver sustainable solutions for our customers: whether through optimising our production processes, using renewable energy in our mills, ensuring the protection of biodiversity in our forests, or, as in this case, developing sustainable practices across the value chain. This makes paper a truly circular and sustainable product”, says Stefanie Eichiner, Sustainability Manager at UPM Communication Papers.

Overcoming transitional challenges

Despite new environment-related measures at the EU level, including a so-called “plastic tax” set to be introduced next year, plastic packaging won’t be disappearing soon. “Everybody wants to ‘go green’ but they will do it at a pace that is acceptable from a cost point of view. Whether it will happen in 2025 or 2035, we don’t know. Legislation will push it at a faster pace,” believes van Houtum.

“What can be achieved,” says Annika Sundell, Executive Vice President of Walki Group’s Innovation and Business Development, “is plastic reduction and thinking about the source of these polymers. We’re addressing both of these on our zero-waste future platform. Our polymers come from renewable sources, so they don’t introduce any fossil carbon into the structure.”

She then adds, “Whether reducing plastics or improving recyclability, addressing sustainability in a variety of ways is the main focus of our customers within the packaging sector. We have collected different technologies, with which we can address a specific wish from the customer. For Walki, this platform is our way of transitioning towards the circular economy.”

A transition of any type can be challenging but, as Bruns points out, “Somebody has to start. It is always more difficult compared to a solution that is already available. When you inform people about a fully new idea that is non-standard in the industry it is not always easy, but it is always worth it.”

Asa Butcher

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