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By using side-stream waste materials from paper and cardboard production as a substitute for plastic, research from Finland’s VTT Technical Research Centre points naturally toward an attractive option for reducing manufacturing costs, cutting the use of oil-based polymers, and lowering the overall environmental impact of plastics manufacturing.

“Paper or plastic?”

It’s a question posed so often that it’s practically become a pop-culture cliché. But thanks to results from an innovative demonstration project, a group of scientists at VTT are compelling material scientists to consider a compelling twist on that question: “Paper for plastic?”

Paper, Meet Polymer

In simplest terms, VTT’s approach mixes side-stream waste from paper production with renewable and petrochemical-based polymers to create “biocomposites”—novel, eco-efficient materials that researchers believe could replace up to half of oil-based polypropylenes.

image of paper sludge
Sludge is a side-stream waste product from the paper manufacturing process.

It all starts with the production of paper and cardboard, which creates side-stream fibers and mineral fillers that are typically lost. That’s precisely where the VTT team recognized a natural opportunity: Take something that’s typically discarded, mix it with a tried-and-true material, and create entirely new composites that offer the potential to deliver multiple financial and functional benefits.

At the beginning of their work, VTT researchers collected deinked pulp, fly ash and non-biological sludge, and, after pretreating them, mixed them with thermoplastic polymers. They then melted those blended materials with additives to create composite granules that could be used in manufacturing.

Mixing in just the right amount of side-stream material is critical, since the ratio of “paper waste-to-polymer” in the recipe impacts key product characteristics, including strength, stiffness, heat resistance, appearance and texture. Similarly, the choice of polymer plays an essential role: Depending on which polymers are added to the initial mix, the end result is a finished product that’s either biodegradable or non-biodegradable.

Finding Proof in the Product

With rich possibilities for injection molding and extrusion top-of-mind, VTT’s researchers put their theories into practice by partnering with five manufacturers to initiate trial projects that used up to 30% deinked pulp, fly ash or sludge:

For the true potential of side-stream composites to be realized, though, VTT researchers caution that ample hurdles still must be crossed. For example, there are no clear government regulations that govern such materials. Plus, as regulations do take shape, they’ll undoubtedly vary from country to country. And material safety considerations, including, for instance, leaching properties, demand additional research.

Still, the “paper for plastic” possibility is an especially timely one. Increasingly strict waste-disposal laws and growing global demand for sustainable products, after all, are constantly prompting industry leaders to explore new uses for waste materials. VTT researchers believe that side-stream composites could replace up to 50% of oil-based polypropylene. And with 322 tons of plastics being produced worldwide each year, use of those composites would be poised to add an entirely new dimension to the phrase “waste not, want not.”

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About the Author

Joseph Gaitens

Joseph Gaitens is a contributor to the Innovation, Inspiration & Ideas blog. Based in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, he serves as a freelance copywriter and brand communication strategist for clients that range from small start-ups to Fortune 100 companies. Joseph’s experience covers a broad spectrum of industries, from high-tech and manufacturing to healthcare and consumer products.

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