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Sappi is replacing crude oil-based plastics in products with wood. That’s basically what Sappi’s innovation “Valida” is all about. Sappi’s R&D team managed to create a substance made from wood that shares similar characteristics with plastics. Valida replaces plastic in multiple applications like cosmetics, concrete, and coatings and helps reduce the use of oil-based plastics worldwide. Valida helps to solve SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and production. It also has positive side effects for SDG6: Clean water and Sanitation and SDG 13: Climate action.
Sappi is an international company that produces paper. With the increasing demand for renewable and eco-friendly products, Sappi decided to use its knowledge about paper production to help reduce the use of plastics worldwide. When Sappi started researching the topic, the main goal was to develop a wood-based material that could replace plastics. Wood is considered a sustainable and renewable raw material, whereas plastics made of crude oil are not. After years of research between 2015 and 2019 in the Netherlands, "Valida" was born.
Valida is a renewable material made of natural cellulose from wood. Therefore, Valida is considered sustainable and eco-friendly. Valida's main benefit is that it shares many characteristics with oil-based plastics, but it is made of wood instead of crude oil. Because of that, Valida is used in multiple sectors and products to replace plastics. Some examples of Valida's applications are cosmetics, coatings, and concrete. "With Valida, we can replace the microplastics in products like cosmetics, and we help to get rid of plastics worldwide," says Boersma from Sappi Maastricht. Therefore, Valida helps to solve SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and production.
Sappi describes its product on its website: "Valida is a renewable material - natural cellulose, the most abundant organic material on earth. Valida contains the smallest component of cellulose - cellulose fibrils. Dispersed in water, cellulose fibrils form an extensive network through hydrogen bonding and mechanical entanglement. The formed network stabilizes suspended particles and oil-in-water emulsions without an emulsifier."
Sappi identified a change in consumer demand from "mass products" to "specialized products." Boersma explains: "Our company has been working on sustainability for decades. We have seen a decline in demand for classic papers. In addition, we realized that consumer behavior in the paper market started to change. Back in the day, the main focus was on producing more and more; bulk goods and mass production. Everything had to be faster, cheaper, and bigger. Nowadays, our consumers are seeking "niche" products."
The combination of a decline in demand for classic paper, consumers seeking specializations, and a growing awareness of climate change and the problems with plastics made of crude oil triggered Sappi and its R&D team to come up with Valida. This wood-based material can replace plastic. In addition, Boersma also talks about the microscopic technology improvements that helped make the innovation possible. "Thousands of years ago, humans found out that wood could burn. A little later, humans discovered they could craft things out of wood. A little bit later, someone found out that he could write on it. We keep going deeper into the wood fibers and discovering new characteristics and applications of wood. Microscopes are so developed these days we can do research now at a new level. We can identify the smallest atoms and fibers inside the wood. New microscopic technology enables us to study these little pieces in all their details and better understand how they behave. That's how we discovered Valida, by digging further into wood's smallest fibers."
Sappi also identified a change in overall attitude towards plastics. This change has created opportunities for the paper industry. "10 years ago, everyone was hyped about the possibilities of plastics and promoted it, such as those plastic sleeves over a six-pack of bottles. This is now considered "not done." That's why we started modifying our classic paper machines towards more eco-friendly papers and researching "MFC" (micro fibrillated cellulose), which later evolved into Valida. Valida is the best example of how we try to reduce the use of plastics in our world and try to solve SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and production.
Boersma is convinced that Valida will become even more critical in the long run. “By 2025, we want 30% of our EBITDA to come from our niche products. Valida will be essential in achieving this goal. We have to find “believers.” We are going to fairs, and our marketing team is working hard on selling Valida to new customers. Valida generates only a small part of our revenue, but it will become more important in the future.”
Governments enforce stricter environmental regulations, creating a massive need for sustainable alternatives for oil-based products. Companies currently using crude oil in their production process desperately seek new solutions to respect the new regulations. Boersma explains: “Governments are constantly trying to make the economy greener. They put laws that decide what raw materials producers can use for their products. This is also the case for the paper industry. For example, by the year 2025, it is no longer allowed to use oil-based materials in our papers. Otherwise, we will have to close down our firm. This is why we are constantly looking for innovations, and Valida has helped our company greatly. In addition, these regulations also apply to other companies that use crude oil in their production process. These companies are desperately looking for solutions to keep their businesses running. With Valida, we ensure these companies can keep producing under the new regulations by switching out oil-based plastics for our wood-based Valida.”
The innovation has benefited Sappi in multiple ways. First, the findings regarding “micro fibrillated cellulose” made it possible to develop a new product, “Valida.” In addition, the new product “Valida” opened new markets for Sappi. “We are currently active in the construction, painting, and cosmetic market, but we are constantly looking for new applications and markets. At the moment, we are researching to launch Valida in the medical market,” says Boersma.
When asking Boersma about the profitability of Valida, his answer is obvious: “Coming up with new ideas and innovation is always fun, but it has to be profitable and fit into the philosophy of our company. Shareholders want profits. Money has to be made. We are working on another new project that was rejected ten years ago because it was not profitable. This is a good example of how long it might take for a great idea to become profitable and worth launching.”
In the beginning, it was hard for Sappi to sell “Valida” because consumers’ belief and confidence in the product had to grow. Clients were unsure if the product worked and therefore had to take a risk buying it and using it in their products. In addition, Boersma mentions the difference in actual quantity sold between the niche products and the mass products. “A disadvantage of these niche products is that our consumers buy less. Back in the day when mass production was more important, customers used to order more. We had to find a way to make a profit out of smaller quantities.”
That’s why Sappi hired a marketing team to introduce Valida to new clients. Thanks to this marketing team, Valida became a profitable product for Sappi. “Valida has been on the market for three years now. We are currently selling Valida worldwide; Valida is booming business! Niche products like Valida are more valuable and, therefore, more expensive per kilogram. That’s why it is profitable. We are currently working on enrolling the production process in other plants and increasing our production worldwide,” says Boersma.
Sappi is convinced that Valida helps to solve SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production. In addition, it also helps to solve SDG 13: Climate action and SDG6: Clean water and Sanitation.
Valida helps to solve SDG 12: responsible consumption and production. Wood is considered sustainable, and crude oil is not. "By replacing oil-based plastics with Valida, we help to reduce the use of plastics in the world, and we help to make consumption and production more durable," states Boersma. For example, Valida helps to make cosmetics, coatings, and concrete more sustainable. "Many producers feel that their clients demand more sustainable and eco-friendly products. With Valida, we help these companies meet their clients' needs."
In addition, Climate change has always been one of Sappi's key focuses because the paper industry is directly linked with wood and trees. With Valida, the company helps reduce plastics in products and, therefore, helps reduce the use of crude oil in many industries. The drilling and burning of crude oil releases a lot of greenhouse gasses and is, therefore, one of the leading causes of climate change.
Valida also helps solve SDG6: Clean water and Sanitation thanks to its biodegradability. Boersma explains: "Another benefit of Valida is its biodegradability. For example, our application in cosmetics. If someone washes off the cosmetics on his face, the cosmetics end up in the sink and, after that, in the sewerage. The problem with oil-based microplastics is that the water treatment plant cannot filter these microplastics out of the water. When we flush out our shampoo or cosmetics, we always think it's gone, but that is wrong. The microplastics inside these products end up in the water and will stay in the water forever. That's not the case with Valida because it is biodegradable. If it ends up in the water, it will disappear."
Boersma ends the interview with the following words: "I am glad to be able to work on projects like Valida. Innovations like these are what we need to secure a beautiful future. It is always a pleasure to work on projects that help the world."
Tjerk Boersma, Process Technology Manager
Sappi is a global provider of everyday materials made from wood fiber-based renewable resources. As a diversified, innovative, and trusted leader focused on sustainable processes and products, Sappi tries to build a more circular economy.
Sappi's raw material offerings, such as dissolving pulp, wood pulp, biomaterials and timber, and end-use products (packaging and specialty papers, casting and release forms, and forestry products) are manufactured from wood fiber sourced from sustainably managed forests and plantations in production facilities powered, in many cases, with bio-energy from steam and existing waste streams.