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New Project Investigates Swapping Out Plastic for Natural Fibers in Textiles

In a three-year piloting project, Finland’s VTT materials research center is working with companies to take the manufacture of new-generation fiber products from concept to industrial production scale.

The Piloting Alternatives for Plastics project, involving 52 companies, brings together a wide range of Finnish and international firms to take materials developed in laboratories toward commercial use to reduce need for plastics. The intent is to replace plastics with natural fibers in areas such as textiles, packaging, hygiene products and building materials.

VTT noted that plastic consumption is estimated to double over the next 20 years and that the biggest challenge for plastic products is their recyclability. For example, just 14 percent of plastic packaging is recycled, so the majority of plastic ends up being incinerated or in landfills and, unfortunately, also improperly disposed of in forests and oceans, VTT said, citing Ellen MacArthur Foundation data.

Piloting Alternatives for Plastics is being carried out at VTT in Jyväskylä, Finland, with access to the first research environment in the world to utilize the foam-forming process.

“In this project, we are creating a new understanding of bio-based fiber networks and how, by tailoring them, we can produce new types of recyclable materials that do not burden the environment,” Jani Lehto, vice president of VTT, said.

In the research of new materials, the challenge is to select the most interesting from a wide range of raw material and manufacturing options, and to reduce the time it takes to scale the results obtained in a lab to commercial production scale, VTT said. The development work done in the project will result in expertise in various raw materials, equipment and manufacturing technologies. Based on the development work, companies can move to the product development phase for different solutions in company-driven projects.

The Piloting Alternatives for Plastics project started on April 1 and runs through March 31, 2023. Its total budget is 6.7 million euros ($ 7.3 million). The project is implemented with funding from the European Regional Development Fund, VTT and companies coordinated by the Regional Council of Central Finland.