Metsä Group & Valmet To Develop Innovative Wood/Fiber-Based 3D Packaging

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Our society is demanding new packaging solutions to replace single-use plastics. Forest industry group Metsä Group, through its innovation arm Metsä Spring, has joined forces with machine supplier Valmet to jointly develop new bio-based, plastic-free, 3D packages. We spoke to Jarkko Tuominen, Project Lead at Metsä Spring, about the forest-based bioeconomy and his ambition for the new material.

Metsä Group is a major contributor to making a sustainable future a reality. In the new collaboration with Valmet, a leading global developer and supplier of process technologies, automation, and services for the pulp, paper and energy industries, the group puts a special focus on replacing fossil resources in consumer products such as packaging.

The development project with Valmet is the third investment made by Metsä Spring, the venture capital arm of Metsä Group. Previous investments include the 40 MEUR textile fiber demo plant in Äänekoski, Finland, owned jointly by Metsä Spring and Japanese ITOCHU Corporation, which is currently at the beginning of the startup phase. Last July, Metsä Spring also made an equity investment in Woodio Oy – a company that develops and manufactures a fully waterproof wood composite material.

Below, Jarkko Tuominen talks about Metsä Group’s new investment, the forest-based economy and how wood fiber can help to replace single-use plastics.

Why is this collaboration with Valmet interesting for Metsä Group?

Metsä Group is actively seeking new business opportunities related to the wood it is sourcing from sustainably-grown Nordic forests. These opportunities should naturally meet market demands, but they should also come with a lower environmental footprint. Metsä Group, for instance, aims to be fully free of any fossil resources by 2030.

We found an interesting business opportunity in the area of wood/fiber-based 3D packaging. However, in order to build a competitive and industrially-realistic solution, we needed a strong and committed machine technology partner. In this case, Valmet is the perfect fit as the group has developed a broad range of relevant technologies over the years and it is strongly focused on developing more sustainable solutions.

One of Metsä Group’s current key business is wood-based packaging materials. What can you tell us regarding the life cycle of the new packaging material you are developing?

Our main raw material will be sustainably grown Nordic wood, thereby bringing additional value to the more than 100.000 forest owners behind Metsä Group. The wood-based fiber is a natural and safe material. Moreover, the fiber is very strong and tolerates recycling well, meaning that with current recycling methods in the EU, products made out of wood fiber can be recycled, on average, up to 7 times. In the future, this number hopefully increases as more effective local recycling systems have been developed.

Why did the world become so dependent on single-use plastics and why is it important to move into this project now?

Single-use packaging was originally taken into use to ensure hygienic packaging of food, and I believe that everybody can understand this reasoning today. The effect of single-use packaging is, in most cases, positive on the environment, when considering all the aspects. However, people today, in general, still only tend to see the negative aspects of single-use packaging, like the littering and issues related to that.

The right thing to do, in my mind, is to develop more sustainable single-use packages, as it is not sustainable or sometimes even safe to stop using them in many places. As mentioned, packaging has almost always a positive effect on the environment and we want to maximize this positive effect by minimizing the footprint of the packaging in the future.

At Metsä Group, we are now accelerating the development of complementary wood/fiber-based packaging solutions because the signs, indicating that the market is ready, are so clear. Additionally, a lot of regulatory work has been introduced lately in many regions, including the EU, making this the correct timing.

The new wood-based material you develop is meant as an alternative to fossil-based materials. What are your aspirations for the characteristics of the material?

Our target is to develop and start producing bio-based, plastic-free, 3D packages that are easily recyclable. In case the package does not find material recycling possibilities in a specific region, it is also suitable for energy generation. Furthermore, if there is no infrastructure for energy generation either, the package we are developing is still compostable, biodegradable and marine-degradable. I strongly believe that we should avoid landfilling.

Our final material solution should also be natural and safe for consumers, even in food applications, meaning that it does not include recycled fibers, fluorocarbons or harmful chemicals. That being said, we will first focus on end-uses which benefit the most of our new solution.

Speaking of food packaging – the use of packaging when it comes to food is often criticized. Why not completely eliminate it?

This is a very common question. The reality is not black and white. On the one hand, society is facing challenges due to microplastics, which often originate from waste plastics. However, food waste itself is also a significant challenge, which is mitigated with good packaging solutions. Taking this idea one step further, the footprint of packaging is actually minimal compared to the footprint of food production. Hence, packaging has almost always a positive effect on the environment due to the reduction of food waste.

That does not mean that food packaging should not be sustainable – it very much should. For our new technology, for example, we should be able to see benefits as food packaging is a wide area. Here, replacing plastics in plates & cups could be the first step.

The forest-based sector is seen as one of the cornerstones of the European bioeconomy and as such, is a major contributor to climate change mitigation. What does it take for this sector to develop further and become increasingly dynamic?

We are in a new situation where a very large part of the global consumers are paying increasing attention to sustainability issues, which in turn means that the market is getting more and more ready for alternative, more environment-friendly solutions.

Investing in the development of new high-risk products requires management commitment and good perseverance, as the changes and adaption in big organizations are normally quite time-consuming. That is why we established our innovation company Metsä Spring – to stay focused and have the ability to handle risks, which are too big for typical business units.

Overall, the forest-based sector is in a good position, because it has access to a renewable raw material and world-class biomass logistics at the same time. If organizations within this sector work towards replacing plastics, it means that big volumes of plastics are replaced – this is an opportunity not many sectors have. Therefore, I believe we are quickly going in the right direction in the whole forest sector.

To present your solution to Metsä Group, get in touch via Metsä Spring’s website.



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