Visuals of trash islands forming offshore, and once beautiful beaches littered with waste haunt the conscience of even the most casual environmentalist. An estimated 50 to 75 trillion pieces of plastic are currently in the ocean and research projects that the amount will outweigh all fish by 2050.
While larger debris can be collected through ever-improving technology, once degraded, microplastics are much harder to reach. The solution is to stop plastic from entering our waterways in the first place, but how can that be accomplished?
Pioneering a label revolution
“With less than 10 percent of the world’s plastic being recycled, it is a significant step that our Ocean Action Label has added value to something that has previously been valueless,” says Flora D’Souza, Sustainability Manager for Label Life at UPM Raflatac.
Intended for cosmetics, home and personal care, beverages and food packaging, this new laminated product is made by chemically recycling Ocean Bound Plastic (OBP) – plastic that exists within a 50 km distance of waterways – that has been mainly collected from the coastal regions of Southeast Asia.
In the process of giving a previously worthless material a new life, UPM partnered with the Saudi chemical manufacturing company SABIC, which believes innovation is the way to a more sustainable future. Dimitri Daniels, Leader of Circular Economy Business Europe at SABIC, notes that UPM Raflatac’s exciting packaging solution “demonstrates how used plastic that has the potential to end up in our oceans can be brought back into a circular material stream.”
With environmental policies moving toward carbon neutrality and plastic reuse, the Ocean Action Label makes sense both for the environment and from a business standpoint. “Our goal is to reduce and eventually end the use of fossil-based fuels and materials, and this supports our purpose,” adds UPM Raflatac Business Manager Eliisa Laurikainen.
“What is revolutionary is that we are the first label manufacturer in the world to adopt OBP waste,” she emphasises. “We want to be pioneers offering an innovative tool to brand owners that have made public commitments to use recycled materials as part of their packaging.”
Making an impact
“When you look at it in terms of just the material, it has a slightly higher carbon footprint than a comparable label made from virgin resources,” says D’Souza. “But that’s not the entire story. This does not account for the fact that we have avoided incineration of this waste. Additionally, what happens if it enters the ocean? What marine life would it destroy? These are aspects that you cannot consider in the same system, yet the impact is there.”
The product is also a way for UPM to raise awareness of an environmental issue and offer a practical solution. “The best-case scenario for this product is that we run out of raw material to produce it – that would be the dream. But because this is unlikely, we at least have a great opportunity to present the problem and offer one way of making a difference,” believes Laurikainen.
Leading the way to expansion
The Ocean Action Label interests brand owners committed to sustainable business practices, catering to an environmentally aware consumer who is accepting of its slightly higher price tag. As pioneers of the OBP label, UPM is also helping to create a market for this type of product. “These brand owners can, by the choices that they make, highlight their value system and be a pioneer in their respective industry,” says Laurikainen.
Ensuring that every partner in the supply chain is OBP and ISCC (International Sustainability and Carbon Certification) certified is an arduous process. As challenging as it may be, UPM, as the frontrunner in sustainable labelling, has a responsibility to lead the way toward a more sustainable future. Laurikainen ends by saying, “It is not the easiest product line to pioneer, but it has raised the bar for how we can do better. There is plenty of interest in our product, which feeds our desire to expand our efforts even further.”