Building circular economy for plastics: Borealis drives the 4-year SPIRIT programme together with Spinverse

Aimed at fostering sustainability in the plastics industry, the four-year SPIRIT programme has already entered its third year of operation. Kicked off in 2022, the SPIRIT programme has successfully launched 14 partnership projects and created a vibrant ecosystem of over 50 members including universities, research institutes, and diverse industry companies. Programme Manager Jaakko Tuomainen from Borealis shares the rewarding experiences gained from this initiative which is part of the Veturi programme for leading companies funded by Business Finland.

Three years of learning and growing interest

SPIRIT Programme Manager Jaakko Tuomainen is delighted over the achievements of the SPIRIT programme so far, highlighting the strong interest in sustainability topics in the plastics industry and the fruitful collaborations with various actors in the sector.

Networking and building the ecosystem has proven to be a key component in driving the plastics industry towards a more sustainable future. Furthermore, SPIRIT with its ambitious R&D roadmap and hands-on collaboration activities has gained a lot of visibility in trade media for related industries, and the SPIRIT team has been able to initiate active dialogue among decision makers and regulators — all the way at the Finnish House of Parliament where the SPIRIT programme and other related initiatives were presented to politicians.

Innovative projects drive the transformation in the plastics industry

The innovation projects running within the SPIRIT programme are reimagining the plastics industry by focusing on four key thematic areas. Renewable feedstock theme studies different bio-based and recycled raw material streams and alternative process routes; Circular plastics theme takes a holistic view on plastics recycling aiming to maximize the recycling rate with mechanical recycling and building capabilities for chemical recycling; CO2 reduction theme, in turn, develops technologies and concepts to lower emissions and utilize CO2 as raw material. The fourth theme, Enablers for green transition, focuses on circular product design, traceability along the value chains and regulatory issues to ensure that the new circular plastic products meet stringent application needs and find their path to the market.

Notable research projects in SPIRIT ecosystem include e.g. the Forest CUMP research project, which seeks to utilize industrial CO2 emissions to produce eco-friendly plastics, Urban Mill building industrial concept for chemical recycling, and MSWPlast studying sorting and valorization of plastics from the mixed municipal solid waste.

Examples of company-driven projects include development of food-grade plastics (such as water containers) from recycled materials by Oy Plastex Ab, as well as Orthex and Fortum (e.g. for food packaging), Circular pipes by Uponor develop recycling of crosslinked polyethylene used in pipes and bring the material back to the same applications. Zero Ink project by Cajo Technologies has developed laser marking for plastic products to avoid stickers improving recyclability and increasing traceability in value chains. ReMatCh led by Stora Enso develops separation of polymer from the fibre in polymer barrier coatings to optimize effective material recovery and recycling of both streams.

Embracing sustainable solutions

Plastics are irreplaceable materials in our modern society ensuring critical infrastructures e.g. regarding electrification, digitalization, water management and supply chains of food industry. The narrative of green transformation of the plastics industry is shifting from criticising "bad plastics" (pretty much related to single-use items) to finding innovative ways to make plastics more sustainable. Replacing fossil feedstock with renewable resources and maximizing reuse and recycling are key challenges. The SPIRIT programme is at the forefront of this transformation, with a commitment to leveraging plastics in a way that benefits society and the environment.

Looking forward, SPIRIT aims to investigate alternative feedstocks and optimize the use of biomass, as well as improve collection and sorting processes. Jaakko Tuomainen visions: “A lot of valuable raw material is ending up in incineration, producing CO2 emissions. This is the case both for recyclable plastic waste, and the side streams of forest industry. Our ambition is that also these streams could be converted to plastics, which stores the carbon throughout the product life, and is even recyclable in the end.”

Spinverse supporting SPIRIT for every step of the way

Starting from the project ideation, building the extensive research plan and Business Finland funding application followed by setting up the governance models and practical work for the ecosystem and arranging the launch event in May 2022, the SPIRIT programme has been supported by experts from Spinverse.

The SPIRIT programme is currently supported by Spinverse’s Ecosystem Leader and Principal Consultant Markku Heino, Communications Manager Maarit Liimatta, and Senior Marketing Manager Eerika Ala-Kantti, who provide the SPIRIT programme with consulting services on ecosystem management, communications and events.

After the SPIRIT launch event in May 2022, the members of the SPIRIT programme have gathered in one annual event with the second one being planned in June 2024. In addition, there have been several workshops, some webinars and countless meetings and discussions between likeminded people passionate about the transformation of the plastics industry. In all, the SPIRIT website boasts more than 30 informative articles on the people, projects and events of the programme, more coming on a monthly basis.

The collaboration between Borealis and Spinverse has been pleasant for everyone and the level of enthusiasm in the SPIRIT programme to make tangible changes for the plastics industry is truly inspirational. Jaakko Tuomainen says: “Spinverse has supported us greatly in getting the ecosystem up and running. Getting all these contacts and a seat in the Finnish discussions on the plastic transformation is a great asset, and an excellent basis to continue the SPIRIT”.

Markku Heino reflects on the fruitful collaboration: “This kind of systemic change calls for intensive collaboration of a variety of different research groups and companies. Building the ambitious R&D agenda and extensive project portfolio of SPIRIT together with Borealis’ key experts and ecosystem partners, and making these big changes happen in real life is highly rewarding. The targets are set high and for the future. We challenge all stakeholders to think boldly, but also to ensure that we together take small but concrete steps systematically towards the targets.”

Photo: SPIRIT R&D theme leaders Sanna Martin and Ismo Savallampi, and Programme Manager Jaakko Tuomainen. Mikko Rönkä (R&D theme leader) and Tiina Paulamäki (communications) missing from this photo (Photo by Borealis).

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