In a world where 96% of products – including those created from man-made textiles – rely on chemical intermediates for their manufacture, the chemical industry urgently needs to find alternatives to fossil-based feedstocks to help tackle the climate crisis.
In contrast to oil or natural gas, the use of renewable carbon from wood to produce bio-based products will have a crucial role. Martin Ledwon, Vice President of Sustainability at UPM Biorefining argues that alongside carbon from direct CO2 utilisation and carbon from the recycling of existing materials, bio-based products will have a role in delivering a net zero future.
Climate change to drive business change
The risks of climate change now need little introduction. We are already starting to live with the impacts of a changing climate on the environment, communities, businesses and supply chains. The ambition to limit global warming to 1.5°C is now hanging by a thread, with voices challenging whether keeping within the 1.5°C trajectory is even still feasible – now making each 0.1°C rise above 1.5°C hugely significant.
With an increasingly narrow window to stabilise climate, it is now incumbent upon major primary industries to take a broader approach to sustainability than solely through decarbonising of energy sources.
In addition to championing a truly circular economy, due to its immense responsibility to supply intermediate products to downstream manufacturers, the chemicals industry needs to curb its high dependency on fossil fuels completely. Specifically, this means finding alternative, renewable feedstocks to replace current petroleum-based ones in the production of chemical intermediates.
Often referred to as “renewable carbon”, the alternative feedstock sources available today are from biomass (typically wood, crops, manure, algae, etc.), from carbon capture or from the recycling of materials already used. For the purposes of this discussion, we are focusing on wood.
Wood is one of the most widely available feedstock sources. Its chemical make-up allows for similar or even enhanced performance characteristics to their fossil-based counterparts. On top of this, operationally speaking, one of the easiest to directly replace fossil-based sources.
At the root of the textile problem
Only two years ago, textile consumption in Europe ranked fourth with regard to the highest impact on the environment and climate change globally. It was also the fifth highest in terms of raw material use and greenhouse gas emissions. And if that wasn’t damning enough, approximately 60% of all materials used by the fashion industry and 70% used in homeware textiles, are made from fossil-based polymers.
It is evident that industries relying on textiles – from fashion to homewares – are facing a major challenge to align themselves with the sustainability strategies of other industries. But we need to look back through the textile production value chain, to find the real root of the problem.
The chemicals system: the beginning of the story
The chemical industry is responsible for the production of a vast number of fossil-based intermediates used to manufacture a vast range of goods which form a significant part of our modern consumer world. This includes mono-ethylene glycols (MEG) which are used extensively in PET resins and are vital ingredients in the production of countless types of textiles.
Replacing fossil-based feedstocks – such as oil and natural gas – with renewable sources will lead to significant reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. According to the American Chemical Society (ACS), even under the most conservative assumptions (i.e. 25% conversion and high separation energy), biochemicals can reduce GHG emissions by up to 88% – and up to 94% under the most optimistic conditions (i.e. 75% conversion and easy separation).
However, until the chemical industry transitions to sustainable models of operation it is impossible for other sectors reliant on chemical products to be truly sustainable.
The chemical industry needs to curb fossil fuel reliance
Today, the global chemical value chain is predominantly linear, with low reuse and recycling rates and significant waste generation. For a transition to a more environmentally friendly mode of operating to become a reality, the chemical industry needs to take a broader approach to sustainability than solely abating climate impacts through decarbonising of energy sources. It needs to curb its high dependency on fossil fuel completely.
Specifically, this means finding alternative carbon sources to petroleum-based feedstocks for its chemical intermediates. For the industry to seriously play its part in becoming more sustainable, it is estimated that at least 59% of its feedstock (and up to 93%) should come from sustainable sources by 2050 – up from less than 5% in 2020.
While most countries now have an unambiguous strategy towards transitioning to 100% renewable energy systems by 2050 or 2060 based on solar, wind, hydrogen and other renewable energies, there are few corresponding policies or strategies which demand the same of material feedstocks. This means we are largely reliant on the demands by downstream industries – and their consumers – for more sustainable products. Plus, the foresight and sustainability ambitions of innovative chemical producers.
But with almost the entire carbon feedstock used in the chemical system currently from virgin fossil sources, the transition to alternative feedstocks represents an enormous challenge.
Example: UPM Biochemicals
One bio-chemical innovator that has risen to the challenge – Finnish company, UPM Biochemicals – will be the first to produce wood-based biochemicals on a large scale, with its €750million biorefinery at Leuna in the German federal state of Saxony-Anhalt.
Renewable wood-based biochemicals are one of the most innovative, yet practical solutions to the fossil-based feedstock transition, offering brand owners and material producers exciting new opportunities for improving their environmental performance.
And UPM has ensured its wood-based feedstocks have sustainability built into each and every part of its value chain. All the wood used is fully traceable and supported by a verified third-party chain of custody, either FSC®- or PEFC-certified, and sourced from regional forests. Up to 60%, by far the largest part of the wood harvested in Germany, is currently used for energy generation and is burned.
However, its use in long-life and recyclable products would make the best of the renewable carbon provided by wood and have a bigger impact in mitigating climate change. Valuing wood, and using it wisely in the post-fossil world means we need to reduce the amount of wood used for fuel and energetic use and increase its material use to foster a circular economy and work towards zero virgin fossil feedstock.
Wood is a sustainable raw material for biochemicals
Wood can serve as the raw material in the production of bio-based chemicals which makes it an ideal bio-based substitute for various petroleum-based products used today.
Not only do trees provide an environmentally friendly alternative to fossil-based feedstocks, but they also absorb large amounts of CO2 during their growing phase and currently represent the only scalable “negative emissions” strategy. Trees of all varieties contribute significantly to improving biodiversity and wildlife habitats, benefiting ecosystems globally.
The chemical intermediates that can be produced from wood have the same chemical properties and performance as fossil-based chemicals and require little or no operational changes or retrofitting of existing manufacturing facilities. And its direct substitution for fossil-based feedstocks has a vast array of applications – particularly for the textiles industry.
Read more: The plastic timeline: How did we get here?
Benefits of a wood based feedstock
The benefit of wood-based feedstock reaches far beyond just reducing emissions from the chemical production process.
A wood-based feedstock reduces the carbon footprint of an end product during the manufacturing phase. Also, the carbon sequestered from the atmosphere by the trees is retained throughout the whole manufacturing process. So within the wood feedstock, the subsequent biochemical intermediate and even into the end-product where remain locked in for life.
UPM biorefinery example
For the new state-of-the-art biorefinery, which is due to become operational in 2024, UPM will primarily use beechwood feedstock, from which it will produce 220,000 tonnes of biochemical intermediates annually. Beech trees are native to Germany and, as a species considered central to the country’s long-term strategy to become more resilient to climate change. Forests in Central Europe are being rebuilt to become more diverse and climate resilient and a mix of species, nature protection and biodiversity standards are central to these regeneration efforts. This also means that new economical end uses must emerge which we provide as part of a push towards de-fossilising chemical and material value streams.
Beech has long been in demand in the furniture sector, but because manufacturers only want the trunks. The branches and forest management by-products have typically been incinerated, resulting in both a waste of high-quality, useable raw material and contributing further to CO2 emissions.
From this fully sustainable wood source, UPM Biochemicals extracts the cellulose to develop a new generation of renewable bio-based “drop-in” glycols.
Mono-ethylene glycols (MEG) which are used extensively in PET resins are vital ingredients in the production of countless types of textiles. Integration into existing manufacture can be easily implemented because UPM’s bio-glycol, BioPura™, is a molecular like-for-like substitute, enabling a much more sustainably sourced, virgin PET to be manufactured.
Ideally, this innovative bio-based PET will be mechanically recycled at the end of life, just as its fossil-based counterparts should be. If it cannot, there is an option for it to be chemically recycled using ‘glycolysis’, with the process requiring additional new bio-based MEG to create new recycled PET. Through integrating BioPura™ as the additional “ingredient” will create a holistic circular economy in the PET value chain.
Wood is one of humanity’s most ancient raw materials but it can also take us into the future.
UPM Biochemicals is at the vanguard of the transition to a circular bioeconomy – where sustainable, renewable production and consumption is the new normal. It is pioneering sustainable chemistry – innovating in chemical processes, scaling biorefining and unlocking the potential of biomass to transform industries.
Replacing fossil and mineral-based materials with wood-based biochemical ingredients will also lock-in carbon sequestered from the atmosphere for the life of the product. This enables us to radically reduce the carbon footprint of materials and provide better, more sustainable choices to consumers.
UPM Biochemicals is accelerating the transition to a circular bioeconomy – where renewable feedstocks, sustainable production and sustainable consumption are the new normal.