Forsknings- och affärsutvecklareContact Anna
Googling the Swedish words for “replace plastics” will produce more than 2.6 million hits. Googling in English will get you an incredible 3 billion hits. It's easy to get the impression that the world is in agreement – plastics must be phased out. But at RISE, Anna Wiktorsson is working with both small and large Swedish companies, and they see a different future – both more complicated and more sustainable.
“We need plastics. If anything, we have made ourselves more dependent in recent years, not least in plastic being used in much of the technology that we increasingly take for granted. Plastics can also, contrary to what we might often believe, help us to live more circularly and sustainably. In everyday life, plastics are often what enables us to conserve food and reduce waste. For the automotive industry, plastics have been necessary materials for reducing the weights of cars and enabling electrification,” explains Anna Wiktorsson, research and business developer at RISE.
In January 2023, RISE, together with industry, academia and industry organisations, will be starting a national centre for sustainable plastics, and the goal there is both simple and complex.
“We must have the right plastic at the right place. And the plastics we use must naturally be both sustainable and used in a sustainable manner. This is a challenge many companies are grappling with based on their own goals, customer requirements and new laws. It is about identifying the kind of product to be manufactured, the environment it will be used in, the service life longevity it can be designed for, whether it can be made reusable and, lastly, whether it can be collected and recycled. This often requires development in several parts of the value chain, and embraces design, material selection and manufacturing processes, but also such things as traceability, labelling and, not least, quality assurance and certification.”
As an example, Anna Wiktorsson mentions RISE's collaboration with the automotive industry, where various projects are evaluating the materials and components used in cars to see which parts can use recycled materials with the same or better performance.
“In other contexts, recycling is not an option. Plastics used in healthcare, for example, may become contaminated, and then it may be better to try to replace petroleum-based plastics with bioplastics. This requires product development so that healthcare staff do not experience any declines in quality with the material changes, as well as verification and certification so that we can know whether the alternatives really work.”
If the sustainability goals are to be achieved, it cannot just be about replacing one material with another, but about using less of what is not needed
RISE provides test beds for recycling, both for durability and longevity assessments. These are used by industry in the development of new materials, products and processes, but also in research projects that drive development in these areas. In recycling, mechanical recycling is dominant, but chemical recycling is needed to a greater extent to be able to handle the compound materials that are becoming increasingly common on the market.
“It is the experience of working with different parts of industry that we are building on at the new centre for sustainable plastics. Through collaboration, consulting and testing, we want to help industry to become better at taking the right actions from the start.”
A driving force behind the centre has been industry's need for a point of collaboration between large companies in final production and often smaller companies in the supply chain. For large companies to achieve their sustainability goals, suppliers must change their processes, and this requires new forms of collaboration. At the centre, they hope to meet in roles other than those of the large company and the subcontractor, and find solutions together.
But there is another link in the value chain.
“At the end of the day, it's also about the customers,” says Anna Wiktorsson. “Whether a straw is made of plastic or paper is of little importance if it is not correctly recycled and ends up in the wrong place. If the sustainability goals are to be achieved, it cannot just be about replacing one material with another, but about using less of what is not needed. And of course – here as well, companies can do more. Today’s business models are very much based on selling more. Staff here at RISE support companies in developing solutions for service, maintenance and repair alongside traditional production. This enables companies to benefit from the products being used longer.”