PlastLIFE project presented at plastic circular economy seminar

News 2024-01-03 at 13:31
The Enabling the Circular Economy of Plastics seminar in Espoo on November 27. © Sari Kauppi

The "Enabling the Circular Economy of Plastics" joint seminar brought together experts in plastic on November 27. The seminar was organized by the PlastLIFE project led by the Finnish Environment Institute and the SPIRIT programme led by Borealis. The morning session featured intriguing presentations on plastic product design and logistics, followed by afternoon workshops. The event was the first public appearance of the PlastLIFE project.

Multidisciplinary work in networks

Work to solve the plastic challenge is being carried out on multiple fronts simultaneously, stated Merja Saarnilehto, the program manager at the Ministry of the Environment. She coordinates the Plastics Roadmap for Finland, supported by the PlastLIFE project. The goal of the Plastic Roadmap is to achieve a breakthrough in the circular economy of plastics in Finland by 2030. This work is supported by a broad network of collaboration, whose task is to create a comprehensive picture of how to address the plastic challenge, communicate about it, and allocate resources for actions to ensure that the necessary changes for the circular economy of plastics are widely implemented. The PlastLIFE project and the Spirit programme, along with their partners, are a valuable part of this overarching collaboration.

"PlastLIFE and SPIRIT have already produced initial results. Our expectations for them to accelerate the work of the Plastics Roadmap rapidly and indeed support it are now high," says Merja Saarnilehto.

Environmental issues in the centre of plastic’s future

Professor Jonna Häkkilä discussed in her keynote lecture the design research conducted at University of Lapland. This research involves various experiments, creating new ideas and methods and making them to prototypes. Design is important as it is a way to reach large audiences.

In the past, new consumer products replaced old ones, with little attention paid to the end of the product lifecycle. Over the last 30 years, product design has shifted significantly towards sustainable materials and recycling as environmental values have become increasingly important. In the future trends of plastic manufacturing, Häkkilä identifies the use of sustainable materials, such as different kinds of biomaterials, advanced recycling technologies, and digital manufacturing methods like 3D printing. This approach allows for the production of plastic products based on demand rather than in large quantities, and, of course, emphasizes the importance of a circular economy, where materials circulate almost indefinitely.

How to remove harmful substances from the material cycle?

Senior research scientist Salla Selonen from the Finnish Environment Institute discussed harmful substances present in plastics. It has been identified that over 13,000 chemicals are used in plastics, of which 3,200 are classified as potentially harmful.

While there is a desire to increase recycling, it is crucial to ensure that materials are safe for both human health and the environment. Legislation and EU regulations aim to remove harmful substances from circulation. If waste material contains excessive Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs), it cannot be recycled. Salla Selonen presented a proposal for an EU-wide database that would assist in replacing harmful substances. It would also be beneficial for information about the chemicals in a product to accompany it throughout its lifecycle. Advancements in technology will aid in the purification and separation of waste materials. The PlastLIFE project is also working on identifying harmful substances in specific waste streams and assessing the risk of certain hazardous substances in these wastes.

Not all plastic can be recycled

Jari Vuorinen from Plastone shared his observations on plastic recycling as a manufacturer of highly demanding injection moulded plastic products. When using recycled material for technical purposes, the material must be pure and with homogenous quality. Recyclability must be considered when choosing the material. While it would be good to use bioplastics, not all of them are suitable for recycling. Also if a material contains many different components, it becomes challenging to recycle. Legislation imposes its own restrictions on recycling: the use of recycled materials is prohibited or very strict for medical products and the same applies for food-contact materials. However, it is still possible to find applications, for example, in the field of veterinary medicine.

Hot and cold

Orthex manufactures plastic household products, and its goal is carbon neutrality in production by 2030, introduced the company's Marketing and Sustainability Director Hanna Kukkonen. Currently, traditional fossil-based plastics are still used in some products because transparent items or those used for food storage cannot be made from recycled plastic.

Orthex aims to increase the use of recycled and renewable plastics in their products. From recycled raw materials, Orthex finds it easiest to produce opaque, dark-colored products that do not need to come in contact with food, such as flower pots, trash cans, and buckets. Their wish is to develop a sustainable, transparent and food-approved material which would withstand hot and cold temperatures.

When waste is no longer waste

In most cases, the material must, in the eyes of the law, "cease to be waste" before it can be used in products, explained Topi Turunen, Senior research scientist at the Finnish Environment Institute. The EU's End-of-Waste Criteria (EoW) determine that the waste status of a material can be removed if the material undergoes a utilization process and does not pose a danger to the environment or humans. Plastic does not yet have its own EoW criteria. In Finland, a proposal has been made for a government regulation on the assessment criteria for the end of the classification of mechanically recycled plastic raw material as waste. This regulation would establish the framework for national recycling processes, materials, and quality control. The regulation was on a public consultation round this spring. Finland's national EoW criteria for mechanically recycled plastic may thus come into effect in 2024.

Challenges of a sparsely populated country

Johanna Yliskylä-Peuralahti from the University of Turku discussed their involvement in PlastLIFE, focusing on plastics in agriculture and horticulture. Agriculture generates surplus plastic waste, for example plastic wraps used for hay bales, various covers, nets, and irrigation pipes. Plastic has become an essential material in modern agriculture, and the quantity of plastic used in farming is not decreasing, given the global population growth and the subsequent increase in food production.

In 2024, agroplastics are coming to the voluntary collection efforts. The Finnish Agricultural Plastics Recycling Ltd is a community that is developing a national system for the collection and recycling of agricultural plastics not covered by producer responsibility. Collection will start with hay bale wraps, and other plastic types will be included later. The challenge lies in Finland's relatively large area, long distances and scattered farms, making efficient organization of recycling crucial to prevent logistics costs from becoming too high.

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More information

  • Senior research scientist Helena Dahlbo, Finnish Environment Institute, 

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