As going green becomes a European business mandate, sustainability, marketing and technical managers at BASF, Dow and Kraton explain their approaches to renewable feedstocks and polymers and their views on European regulation, technology development, collaboration with brand owners and debonding

“Materials, technologies, products” was the theme of Afera’s 3rd session of our digital 63rd Annual Conference on sustainability and circularity. Moderated by Afera team strategist Bert van Loon and Afera Sustainability Working Group leader Martijn Verhagen, the 90-minute live webinar first addressed 3 raw materials companies’ current product development programmes which contribute to the bio-economy. Later, a panel of experts from the same companies, BASF, Dow and Kraton, discussed the regulatory impact on the shift towards sustainable products and practices, the importance of greater collaboration within the supply chain—specifically with brand owners and retailers—and the challenge of debonding adhesive tapes in end products.

BASF: obtaining biomass balance with a product portfolio based on acrylic chemistries

Offering water-based and UV acrylic hot melts
BASF sells a comprehensive portfolio of products into the adhesives industry based on either water as dispersions or 100% UV acrylic hot melts. Already for years, the company has not sold any solvent-based materials into this market. “We believe we have a way to generate a more sustainable product portfolio,” began Dr. Angelika Roser, presenting a short paper including the work of Dr. Anja Thomas, Dr. Thomas Christ and Klaus Menzel. BASF’s stated purpose is to create chemistry for a sustainable future, and to this end, its board of directors decided to “take a really big step” and decouple its CO₂ growth from its economic growth. This meant developing and utilising cutting-edge technologies to generate a more sustainable product portfolio. “In a nutshell, we create chemistry that makes your product love renewable raw materials.”

Feeding 100% sustainably sourced renewable feedstock into the verbund
For the purposes of illustrating one purely technical, bio-mass balanced approach, Dr. Roser, who is the global sustainability manager at BASF, explained how the German multinational, which is the largest chemical producer in the world, feeds 100% sustainably sourced renewable feedstock into its verbund (the physical integration of production, market platforms and technologies which tie the businesses together). In doing so, it saves fossil resources and reduces its CO₂ footprint. “And what you get is high-quality products with identical performance to their conventional counterparts,” she said. “And on top of that, we both reduce and reuse waste.”

BASF substitutes fossil raw materials, such as gas and naphtha, with renewable resources, such as bio-methane and bio-naphtha derived from organic waste, as feedstock in the very first steps of chemical production. The bio-based feedstock is then allocated to specific products sold by means of the biomass balance (BMB) method, which BASF has certified according to the REDcert2 standard. Thus output of the verbund is a mix of fossil- and bio-based products which are not distinguishable on the basis of their composition or technical characteristics.

“Not only do we all save in fossil feedstock and CO₂ emissions, but our customers do not have to reformulate or seek new product approvals,” said Dr. Roser. “Furthermore, the certification system guarantees a sustainable product for the customer, and its allocation system allows BASF to track how much of the bio-based raw material will be used in the end product, ensuring the correct volume.” Noting that BMB materials as well as energy used must be calculated from product to product according to customer requirements, she presented an example in which a BMB product delivered an 80% savings in CO₂ emissions.

Dow: moving towards a circular economy with bio-polymers

Recycling post-consumer waste into polyethylene feedstock
Dow has a portfolio of acrylic-based pressure-sensitive adhesives which it sells to the adhesives industry. “Our vision around sustainability is to incorporate renewable and recycled content in our feedstock mix, including a commitment of 100,000 tons of recycled plastics in our E.U. product offering by 2025,” reported Dr. Karlheinz Hausmann, senior global technical service and development manager for packaging and specialty plastics at Dow Europe GmbH in Horgen, Switzerland. In the feedstock recycling solutions area of Dow’s circularity strategy, Dr. Hausmann explained in a presentation co-prepared by Isabelle Uhl and Carolina Gregorio, they are currently “developing a pyrolysis type of approach of recycling post-consumer waste into polyethylene feedstock.” Dow is working with waste management partners and Fuenix, a pyrolysis technology provider, to convert pyrolysis oil into recycled naphtha which is injected into Dow’s crackers to make polyethylene based on recycled feedstock.

Bio-based polyethylene polymers based on tall oil
Because of European consumer demand for using packaging made from renewable resources, Dow is also active in developing a bio-plastic-based polyethylene solution in collaboration with UPM, a Finnish producer of bio-naphtha using the raw material tall oil, which is a by-product of the paper production industry. These bio-based polyethylene polymers are bio-based PE resins produced from renewable raw materials instead of fossil fuels but are exactly the same in composition and performance as their fossil equivalents. Thus the packaging structure does not require re-homologation, the polymers meet food contact safety standards, and very importantly—as many of the bio-based materials on the market are not actually recyclable—the polymers do not impact packaging recyclability.

Dow’s bio-based polyethylene offering is based on tall oil, which is extracted when separating wood fibre for pulp production in manufacturing paper. “It is derived from sustainably managed forests, so it does not compete with the human and animal food chain like other alternative renewable feedstocks,” emphasised Dr. Hausmann. “And also important is that it does not imply arable land resource usage.” After UPM converts the tall oil into bio-naphtha, Dow injects this alternative feedstock into its crackers to manufacture bio-based polymers, in particular bio-based polyethylene polymers which are used in renewable packaging. The value chain is ISCC PLUS certified to ensure the resins are bio-based according to a mass balance approach.

“Using this process, for every kilogram of bio-based polyethylene produced, instead of creating 2 kilograms of CO₂, you eliminate 1 kilogram of CO₂ from the atmosphere,” Dr. Hausmann shared. Not just limited to packaging, bio-polyethylene can be used in labels too. Most recently, Dow has been successful in developing bio-based polyethylene pressure sensitive labels with partners such as UPM Raflatac and Polifilm. The company is also in the process of developing alternative chemical recycling or feedstock-recycled polyethylene based on both ISCC PLUS mass balance and post-consumer recycled (PCR) content.

Kraton: making bio-based tackifier for hot melt tapes with rosin ester

Kraton, a leader in the pine chemicals industry, strives to provide the adhesive industry with bio-based alternatives to hydrocarbon tackifiers of better, or at least equal, performance with a lower carbon footprint. “Kraton develops, manufactures and markets bio-based chemicals and specialty polymers that enhance people’s lives all over the world,” explained Morgane Burgorgue, EMEA marketing manager, and Render de Vos, technical manager of R&D for pine chemicals, both at Kraton, in their short presentation on how using bio-based tackifiers in an adhesive formula contributes to the bio-economy. “Sustainability is at the core of the company’s strategy, and even before launching our REvolution rosin ester, we had a sustainable product line of over 90% bio-based content resins.” Kraton has also been active in developing lifecycle assessments and bio-based certifications of some of its products.

Kraton’s raw material originates from sustainably managed forests, which do not consist of genetically modified trees, do not compete with food crops and do not require arable land to grow. Illustrating the concept of industrial symbiosis, the European adhesive tape industry utilises the by-product of manufacturing pulp and paper as the raw material for its own production. This concept allows materials to be used in a more resource-efficient and sustainable manner and also serves as a practical example of the circular economy in action at local scale.

The fibre extraction and paper pulping process generate crude tall oil, which Kraton has been refining in its biorefineries for nearly 100 years. This is refined into tall oil rosin, which can be upgraded into several different products in their production processes, wherein certain product properties such as acid number, softening point and colour can be influenced. In its reactors, Kraton esterifies the rosin to make a rosin ester, which can be used as a tackifier in adhesive applications such as hot melts for tapes. This natural-based tackifier is compatible with a wide range of polymers and offers low molecular weight distribution, a cycloaliphatic-aromatic structure and high bio-based content.

“Using bio-based tackifiers in an adhesive formulation contributes to the bio-economy, but natural products are not without their challenges, and we have to think out-of-the-box to improve our products’ properties without compromising our use of bio-based content,” commented Mr. De Vos. “In the case of rosin esters, they are more difficult to stabilise, but our R&D team took on the challenge of meeting market demand by supplying adhesives formulators with a light colour and stable rosin ester as an alternative to the fossil-based hydrocarbon resins.”

Kraton also made a conscious decision to develop its new technology within its existing manufacturing capabilities in order to obtain its existing attractive production yield while being able to scale up quickly and economically. “No capital investment needed also means fast time to market, increasing the chance of a broad and swift adoption of a new bio-based solution,” Ms. Burgorgue said. The adhesives industry has the added complexity that it touches upon a multitude of applications, each with their own specific technical requirements and sustainability goals.

Panel discussion: regulation has a big impact on adhesive tape technology and product markets

Is technology ready for the ambitions of sustainability? The raw materials providers on today’s panel proved that it is. Are markets ready for the economics of sustainability? They increasingly seem to be moving in this direction, but everyone agreed that presently regulation and politics play a huge role in driving sustainability forward. “It surprised all of us how fast regulation and politics can move forward when things are quiet, like during COVID-19,” offered Dr. Roser. “If regulations move along with the increasing calls from the markets for sustainable products, this support would help a lot.”

“Technology has always kept up with consumer demands, factoring in the cost variable of course,” commented Dr. Hausmann from his experience with biopolymers and sustainable solutions of over 10 years and recycling applications of over 20. “But the real push—the real difference felt throughout the value chain—was made by the regulatory authorities, and we are seeing the result of this now.”

Mr. De Vos agreed. “It’s the regulatory element that can definitely be the door-opener,” he added. “You see that sometimes R&D has a solution available, yet the market is not really ready for it. So economics play a big role, and then the regulatory push helps.” With this, he warned companies to ensure that they are aware of the direction regulation is moving. “When new laws are put into place, they should not come as a surprise to you. You usually see regulatory announcements being made by the E.U. years in advance of taking effect.” Listen to them and adapt your technologies or products accordingly, Mr. De Vos advised. The European Green Deal (EGD), which has just been announced, is in its early stages, but the E.U. is putting a lot of resources behind it. “I believe there is going to be a huge amount of force put behind the EGD over the next few years in its implementation and CO₂ reduction, he continued. “We are going to see a lot more coming our way, and that is going to be a benefit to our European industry from a technology, application development and consumer standpoint.”

Dr. Christian Krüger, corporate sustainability expert and Dr. Roser’s colleague at BASF, agreed that the EGD, the Circular Economy Act and other legislation contains aspects “which the chemicals industry and especially the tape industry could benefit from, and therefore I see from the mid-term more force coming from that direction,” pressure which will bring about change from the retailers and brand owners all the way up to the raw materials suppliers.

The potential for technology development is still endless

Raw materials providers are moving in the direction of developing organic polymers. Ms. Uhl, global application technology leader for packaging and specialty plastics adhesives, who joined the panel with fellow Dow colleague Dr. Hausmann, suggested that disruptive, game-changing technologies are still waiting to be developed. “Our potential for creating revolutionary application technologies is still there, but there needs to be collaboration with partners, co-suppliers and customers,” she said. “Because on our own, I do not believe that we will be really able to manage the big stuff.” Not only “is sharing key”, but the market also has to be ready to accept that new, better sustainable solutions are simply more expensive. “Each step of the way of future development of sustainable solutions requires additional cost, and down the chain everyone should be prepared to make his contribution, because this should be a win-win for the future of the planet.”

“From a technology point of view, I think we as the chemical industry already offer many sustainable products that can be used downstream,” Dr. Krüger shared. “But I think we can do more, and there will be more that comes up in the recycling arena, for example, in terms of bringing back feedstocks into the loops, and this could be marketed downstream also.” He said that a first priority is enabling players downstream to play their part in embracing sustainability as well.

Procurement takes at seat at the table

Everyone on the discussion panel agreed that in the future, more entities along the value chain should be in better contact with each other and more involved in the development of technologies and solutions for the users of adhesive tape. This starts with procurement in many companies having a seat at the strategic management table when we start developing purchasing projects. “Are they currently involved enough at the outset of the process?” Mr. Van Loon asked.

“You start your sustainability journey by cleaning up your own house, putting things in order. In doing so, you look at your operations and where you are getting your materials from, and you involve your suppliers,” answered Ms. Burgorgue. “As we have also seen with BASF and Dow, collaborating with your supplier is very important, as you cannot develop a new product out of totally unethical, unsustainable raw materials—you need transparency and traceability. So, yes, procurement teams have to be involved.”

Looking at the adhesive tape’s value chain joining the circular economy, something Dr. Krüger said would be “a very long journey”, feedstock sources play an important role, according to the experts’ discussion, further suggesting that procurement activity is of prime importance. “One feedstock may be better for one region, such as the paper industry’s wood-based industry in northern Europe,” he said. “In other areas of the world, other feedstocks need to be sought out, because not everyone can go to the same source. There is simply not enough of it, and you will run into a difficult situation in terms of availability and cost.” He added that many sources need to be looked into, whether they are various bio or recycling loops that will be in place decades from now, and BASF is doing just this: offering solutions that contribute to the linear value chain turning completely circular.

Dr. Hausmann added that many problems that need to be solved in today’s adhesive tape value chain lie in the sustainability arena at the level of the retailer or brand owner, who needs to specify something. “And I am all the way up at the end of the interlinking chain and do not understand what their needs are, and without sitting around the table together, I could try to solve it, but it will take much more time.” He explained that a cultural change has occurred gradually over the last 30 years in the Industry, in which the downstream customers now meet with upstream suppliers, “allowing raw materials suppliers to develop faster, more effective solutions.”

Increasing collaboration throughout the adhesive tape value chain

“Collaboration is not new; it has always been there,” related Ms. Uhl. “We have always collaborated in developing new solutions, but more on a one-on-one, customer-supplier basis.” In her successful experience with packaging at Dow, they have included all the players down the value chain, including the brand owners and retailers. “And this is what makes the change in culture: really listening all the way through the value chain to what the problems and challenges are and then working together to develop new sustainable solutions.”

“It is the brand owners who are paving the way forward, and like Isabelle said, communication is key,” echoed Dr. Roser. “The end customers in the chain are looking for something, and the adhesives industry relays that back to the raw materials suppliers. Sometimes this information gets lost or skewed, so we have to get better in contacting, communicating and understanding the customers’ needs. At the end of the day, as Karlheinz pointed out, better sustainability can also be reached with better product performance.” And improving product performance and allowing customers to benefit from that is their usual, day-to-day work.

Collaborating with the R&D departments of brand owners allows you to collaboratively develop a holistic storyline and create value for their customers, the consumers. “And the brand owners also ask us as raw materials suppliers to help them with our experience, storylines and connections to other entities in the chain, to work together in creating valuable new products,” Dr. Hausmann said. “Surely you have to meet technical requirements, but you have to be able to build a good story out of that, working closely with brand marketing departments, because often the products are more expensive.”

“What you see happening right now is that demand on R&D—so the speed at which R&D needs to operate—is actually accelerating, because down the value chain, questions are being asked with increasing speed,” added Mr. De Vos. “As a result of that, you as an R&D group or department need to ensure that you are actually at the table.” Whereas before R&D specialists tended to be more hidden within their organisations, now it is actually a key requirement for R&D to be an active part of customers’ businesses, sitting at their table. “Along with customer account managers, they need to visit customers and listen to their needs, and then it is up to them to bring that back into their organisations and perhaps into the rest of the value chain.” In short, companies need to make sure that their R&D organisations are very close to where the value is, with either the customer or the consumer.

“Is it realistically possible or just an ideal that we will never be able to realise: to bring the entire value chain to the table or at least streamline information through the value chain?” Mr. Van Loon asked. Mr. de Vos answered that consortia such as Afera as an industry collective play a key role in bringing parties together through the hosting of events and activities, such as this webinar itself. “Organising something like this helps us to collaborate by getting everyone to the table, extending the invitations to our customers as well,” he shared. “I think that is the key.”

Developing debonding tapes is the biggest challenge

Especially specialty tapes support great forces when put into place. The value chain is studying how to ensure that tapes can be debonded or removed so that the tapes, as well as the other components of the end product, can be recycled. “The problem or challenge is that the market is highly fragmented,” emphasised Ms. Uhl. “Many different adhesive technologies are utilised according to the various requirements and highly demanding characteristics requested of market applications.” The key challenge on the pressure-sensitive side is combining market demands for high performance with the “debonding on demand” effect in tapes. She related that this is something that they have already been working on in labels in terms of wash-off adhesives. “But debonding tapes, especially specialty tapes, is even more challenging. It is something we have to tackle in the future, and it is going to be very difficult.”

Dr. Roser agreed that “it is a challenge due to the variety of adhesives and sometimes little demand, but debonding is a necessity for going farther down the road in recycling.” Dr. Krüger added that “the chemical industry should provide solutions that (indirectly) enable recycling, as there is a lot of regulatory pressure on this, and debonding, as others have said, would enable recyclability.” Otherwise, he warned, “in some sectors, we’re out.” Similarly, Dr. Hausmann said that “probably the biggest challenge is finding a technology which allows for debonding or taking apart things that you put together with tapes. Many people are trying to find solutions, looking at the de-cross-linking or debonding compositions and their chemistries.”

Ms. Burgorgue warned, however, against underestimating the overall sustainably enabling functions of tape such as prolongation of the lifetime of products, lightweighting, waterproofing and other multifunctional characteristics, etc., which may cut down on the need for larger, additional or new products. “A holistic approach to the challenge is needed and not just focussing on whether tape can be debonded from something,” she suggested. “This is a discussion we should have with everyone in the value chain.” Ms. Burgorgue concluded the session by highlighting the importance of education and awareness of sustainable issues within the value chain, suggesting that Afera can serve as a medium for realising these. “It is crucial to be able to debate certain topics in a neutral environment to promote healthy and critical discussion among parties, and above all, to avoid greenwashing which could discredit the entire industry value chain.”

Afera’s sponsors of the Annual Conference were highlighted and thanked for their continued support:

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