We’ve heard a lot about plastics in the
news and it’s not been good news. Plastic waste causes so many problems for animals and their habitats. It goes into the food chain, it entangles, them it’s
awful. But that’s not the only problem that plastic causes in the environment.
Plastics are made from fossil fuels and so producing them releases carbon
dioxide and greenhouse gases into the atmosphere increasing global warming.
Globally the plastics industry produces 3.8% of all greenhouse gases
that’s nearly double the aviation industry. So you may think it’s a little
bit odd that this video is being funded by Dow, one of the largest plastics
companies in the world and I was super skeptical when they emailed me. But
they’ve invited me here to Finland to learn about this new technology they’re
investing in to make bioplastics, that is plastics made from wood and not from
fossil fuels. So this drastically reduces the greenhouse gas emissions and we’re
going to need bioplastic technologies like this if we’re going to have any
chance of reducing global warming in time. So how do you make plastics from
wood? Well first you’ve got to have a good source of wood and here in Finland
they’re using FSC forest; that is forests that are being sustainably managed in
this case as part of the paper industry. Many biofuels projects have some pretty
big downsides; if you are changing land use so you’re chopping down the Amazon
rainforest in order to plant sugarcane or if you’re diverting food out of the
food chain so not only is there less food for humans to eat but also it’s
increasing the price of food those aren’t great. But in this project, this
wood was here anyway, this is being managed sustainably to make paper and
it’s the byproducts of that industry what would otherwise go to waste that’s
being used to ultimately make plastics. Naturally when faced with the biggest
pile of wood chips I’ve ever seen, my first reaction was to frolic in the chips.
Apparently no one has ever frolicked on this chip mountain before they’re
missing out. These wood chips have all been produced for the pulp industry to
make paper and cardboard and things like that.
But wood is more than just pulp. Pulp is just the cellulose part of the wood and
a lot of the rest of the wood is this thing called lignin.
It’s another structural compound, just like cellulose like roughage or fibre,
but it’s waterproof and it’s a lot tougher to work with chemically. So in
the past they would have extracted the cellulose out of the wood and then just
thrown the lignin part away, maybe burnt some of it to recover some of the energy
but couldn’t really use the chemical properties of it. But that lignin is
dissolved into something called crude tall oil. This is what happens when you
add a load of alkali chemicals, heat and pressure to the wood. You end up with
this beautifully white pulp to make paper and this brown sludgy stuff. This
is the unrefined lignin. Jaakko knows everything there is to know about the
biorefinery here, so I asked him some very scientific questions. So why is it called tall oil because it’s not very tall? It comes from the Swedish language: “tallolja” means “pine tree”. Ok, so this is pine oil in essence?
In a way, yes. Does it smell like pine?
No it doesn’t.
No? No it doesn’t. It smells like… a bit like
cooking chemicals. It’s not the fresh…
Not like air freshener, the little thing you hang up in your car Let’s give it a little waft…
Oh. Ew. Yeah, that’s… That’s weird.
It’s a bit like a tar added with a sulphuric
It is! sulphuric part
You definitely get that egginess from the sulphur But you also get a kind of smoky…
yeah that’s… I would never have guessed that to have come from a tree. And what UPM have worked out how to
do is how to turn this into this. This colourless liquid is
naphtha and so that’s a mixture of hydrocarbons, so things like petrol,
diesel, all of those short chain carbon and hydrogen molecules that are super
useful not only for biofuels but also for making plastics In the biorefinery with the crude tall oil, where with the catalysts, high pressure, high hydrogen
pressure and temperature, we are chemically converting this syrup-like
material into bright and clear pure hydrocarbons. So catalysts are the secret sauce.
Yeah this does look like sauce This looks like something you’d pour over
So it depends on the selection of different catalysts
which will be the reactions taking place. Then the hydrocarbons are distilled and then the liquids are the light boiling hydrocarbons; the naphtha components. And what’s great about this this bio naphtha is it is chemically
identical to naphtha that’s come from fossil fuels. You can’t tell just by
looking at an unlabelled bottle that it’s been made from wood chips. And so you can pour bio-naphtha straight into the machines that produce these. These are
plastic nurdles or the most basic form of plastic. And one use of these wood-derived plastic nurdles is packaging. And this packaging is kind of cool because
it not only has the plastic component the lignin part of the wood but
obviously that’s a lot of paper involved in this as well so it’s also using the
cellulose part of the wood. And what they’re doing here means that no part of
the wood gets thrown away. You get entire logs coming in: first it goes to timber;
if it can’t be used for timber it’s used for pulp; if it can’t be used for pulp
it’s used to make naphtha, and that naphtha that goes on to make plastics; and
anything that’s left over you can then burn to generate enough electricity
to run the entire plant, so that this plant is self-sufficient,
it doesn’t need to take energy off the grid in fact it provides electricity to
the rest of Finland. Thomas is the product director for Dow
and oversees this whole project to make bio plastics from wood. So what are the benefits of using wood based naphtha? Look, it’s another sustainable solution that
we are looking into and the big benefit is actually reducing greenhouse
gases. So if we replace one tonne of fossil fuels with one ton of bio naphtha, we are
saving 2.86 tonnes of greenhouse gases. That’s so cool and that means that when you scale
it up and you’re producing hundreds or thousands of tonnes of bio naphtha that’s
gonna make a noticeable difference in greenhouse gas emissions.
Correct. We can multiply this effect the more we scale it. So what is special about this project?
What’s special about this project is that it’s scalable. It’s the first time that
we can offer a scalable product that actually our customers can use then to
produce a packaging.
And your customers aren’t the people going to the
supermarkets they’re the people who make the products that people at home buy.
And so for them to say we want to make sustainable… we want to only use
sustainable plastic in our packaging, we want to use stuff that’s been derived
from wood, that’s a big deal!
Yes it is! It’s the first time we actually have can have a
choice, right? We can have a choice buying something that is made out of fossil
fuel or buying something that is made out of renewable sources.
That’s really cool. I have so many flies in my hair
right now that I can’t…
Me too!… Carsten is the commercial director and as the voice of
Dow on this trip I wanted to ask him some of the tougher questions, but fair
play to him he was happy to answer them all. Dow is one of the biggest plastic
companies in the world is that safe to say? That’s safe to say.
So why are you interested in bio plastics? So one of the reasons… we are one of the biggest
producers in the world but we are not interested to see plastics in the
environment. We also are not interested in consuming a lot of resources in the
world so we’re very interested in this partnership with UPM and bio plastics
from renewable feedstock sources because it’s a good way of actually
saving on fossil fuels and using renewable sources to produce plastics. There’s always the risk that if someone in the supermarket sees “oh this is a
sustainable plastic” they’re like “oh I’ve done my bit now I can just throw it away
and forget about it”. Are you…is there anything you can
do there because recycling plastic is surprisingly difficult. I literally have
a PhD from Oxford and I can be stood by the recycling bin trying to work out if
it’s recyclable or not and what bin it has – like it’s hard!
It is very complex, and I have the same situation at home Is this recyclable this is not recyclable
which is why one of the things that we’re focusing on is “design for
recyclability” so we should, as consumers, know that when we pick down that package
from the shelf it’s recyclable. We have technology in that field that we can
apply and we’re going to do that as a matter of fact we are doing that. And
then to your to your other points, we’re working on other things that we can
bring plastic back either via an oil or into the same kind of application in a
circular system because we really believe that plastics should be part of
the circular economy like other materials. So what is the circular economy?
So a circular economy is… Today we’re working in a linear economy.
So we make the plastic, we use the plastic, we throw the plastic away.
So what we want to do is that the plastic is not thrown away but it comes
back as a raw material for our production, either in a shape of (like I
explained before) mechanical recycling, so it’s washed, it’s shredded and goes back
into an application, or if it’s really lower quality we turn it into an oil and
then we make plastic from it. So we all know that plastics are terrible in terms
of greenhouse gas emissions that they when they end up in the environment
they’re a terrible polluter that just never go away and Dow has been making
money doing this for the last few decades. Is this initiative just too little too late?
So to your point, no one wants to see plastic in the environment.
We don’t want to see plastic in the environment. We believe that plastic is
way too valuable to end up in the environment. And this initiative with UPM on renewable feedstock it’s just one of four initiatives that we’re actually driving. You know, we don’t support plastic if
plastic is not the most sustainable choice for an application. We don’t
support overuse of plastics. Which I have to point out, you’ve been
saying on this trip that Dow does not support the overuse of plastics. I think
that that is huge for a plastics company to say “you know what, we could make money
by selling you plastic for this use but we’d rather not”. Dow is a big company,
and big companies at the end of the day are gonna try and want to make more
money because otherwise the company wouldn’t continue to exist so how are
you making money from sustainable plastics? So we have we have to remember
one thing: that this is the market that’s demanding this. It is us as consumers we
want plastic to be recyclable, we want recycled content, we are driving this.
This is not an initiative about making more money, this is us engaging in making
plastic part of the circular economy. A recent study found if we’re going to
significantly reduce the amount of greenhouse gases produced by the
plastics industry we’re going to have to do four things. We’re gonna have to
reduce demand, we’re gonna have to recycle the plastics that we do make,
we’re going to have to use bio plastics, and the energy we use in producing has
to come from renewable sources like wind energy or tidal energy.
But this study also found that doing just one of those isn’t enough. Just recycling isn’t enough.
Just reducing demand of plastics isn’t enough. We’ve got to do all four. And so
whilst it’s great that on a small scale individuals reduce how much plastic they
use, using a reusable coffee cup, not taking a plastic straw if you don’t need
one, that’s great. But we need big scale changes on the scale of big companies
like Dow if we’re going to make a big enough impact. Although Dow may have
been part of the global problem we need them if we’re going to have a global
solution that’s going to be effective. Plastics are useful materials. They can
reduce emissions from food waste. They can be made sterile for medical uses.
Plastics are useful and they’re here to stay. So as long as we think about where
we’re getting the materials from, about the energy that goes into them and how we
dispose of them, they’re going to be around but they needn’t necessarily be
quite so bad for us. This video is part of Team Trees! We are all across YouTube
making videos about trees and the environment to try to plant 20 million
trees by the start of 2020. And the way you do that is you donate $1 at teamtrees.org
or at the YouTube donate button just below this video. And Arbor Day
Foundation who are a tree planting charity have agreed that they will plant
a tree for every dollar raised which means that you can plant 10 trees in less than
the time it takes me to plant a single tree in Finland. What can I say the
ground was very hard it was surprisingly tough to plant that tree. And then once
you planted your trees all around the world, go and search the team trees
hashtag all across YouTube. You’ll see there are massive creators that you’ll
almost certainly have heard of and smaller ones so discover new YouTubers
across all different genres making videos about trees and the environment
and we’re going to try and take over YouTube from now until the end of the
year so that the trending page is just videos about trees and the environment
and all of your recommendations are about trees and the environment and
climate change. How cool would that be and what a great message would that send
out. So go to teamtrees.org to find out more, donate, plant your trees, spread the word,
and let’s make more trees in the world