With smart, chemical additives, plastics can be tailored to be more durable and more degradable at the same time. The first Nordic plastic industry is back on the leading edge.

”We were the first company in Scandinavia to manufacture synthetic plastics”, says Anna Berggren, Business Development Manager at Perstorp. ”Many people probably still associate our name with laminates for kitchen and furniture, with green garbage containers, and the Pergo plastic laminate flooring which became an export success.”

The Perstorp isolite factory in the 1930s. Back then, the company was at the leading edge of plastics development with their thermosetting resins. Today, they provide modern bioplastic materials with longer life and better circular properties. Photo: Perstorp.

Perstorp has a long and diversified history, beginning as an acetum producer. In 1918, the first Nordic plastic material was introduced – the bakelite-like isolite.

Thermosetting resins gave way to meltable thermoplastics, and in the 1950s, plastics had become a mass production industry. By then, Perstorp had established itself as the first modern plastics industry in Scandinavia, selling more than 10 000 products.

”The driving force was to develop new solutions to satisfy needs or solve problems. Plastics have been the subject of much debate, sparked by the poor waste management in many parts of the world – but while the problems must be acknowledged, so too must the fact that it is a tremendous family of materials with many applications. It allows us to transport more easily by reducing weight. It protects foodstuff and medicine. It insulates buildings and saves energy. Used in the right way, plastics make a significant contribution to a better environment”, Anna Berggren points out. She adds:

”Nevertheless, it is imperative that the materials are disposed of properly. That means that the material streams has to be directed towards either recycling or reuse”.

From laminates, to chemistry – and back to the future of plastics

While plastics in general went on to conquer the world – to date, more than 8 billion tonnes have been produced – the company made a name for itself in the area of high-pressure laminates, from the 1920s and onwards. But the focus kept evolving:

”About 20 years ago, Perstorp decided to concentrate on specialty chemicals. The plastics-related businesses were sold”, says Linda Zellner, director of Innovation på Perstorp. ”Recently, the company has made a renewed effort in the plastics sector; we realized that we could offer resource-efficient and sustainable alternatives which would give our customers a competitive advantage. Today, the major market segments are paints, adhesives and plastics.”

Anna Berggren believes that the companys success on the world market can be partly attributed to Sweden’s reputation as a pioneering country, and Perstorp is now considered market leader in half of their segments. One important area is the development of next-generation plastics.

Smart additives improve material properties

”It is crucial for us to keep abreast of development, and work proactively with innovation”, Anna Berggren says. She emphasizes that new products must be competitive as well as resource-efficient.

One of the company’s focal areas is bioplastics, for bags, films, packaging and surfaces. The basic idea is to customize material properties of renewable and biodegradable plastics by adding caprolactones: a kind of additive where Perstorp is the leading manufacturer. The caproplactones make the materials more durable, so that they last longer and can be used in more demanding applications.

Perstorp’s caprolactones improve the properties of elastomers, surfaces, bioplastics, adhesives and thermoplastics, resulting in longer-lasting and more biodegradable products. Photo: Perstorp.

Robustness and degradability may seem like irreconcilable objectives, but the product solution Capa finds the happy medium. While the caprolactone-reinforced biopolymers are more resilient to mechanical stress and are not degraded by contact with foodstuff, they remain biodegradable and compostable, and break down quickly in the right conditions.

”We want to make waste management easier, by offering biodegradable or recyclable alternatives. But we also want solutions that allow products to stay in use longer, in order to use resources more responsibly”, Linda Zellner explains. She gives another example of the same principle at work – the general purpose plasticiser Pevalen:

”Pevalen is a plasticiser completely without ftalates. It contributes to the transformation of an entire group of materials, PVC,  from an environmental problem to a solution with long life and high percentage of renewable content.”

Ambitious goals for sustainable practices

Perstorp has a long history not only in innovation and marked-oriented development, but also in sustainability measures. It was one of the first chemical industries in Sweden to formulate an environmental policy, and heat from the production facilities has contributed to district heating for decades. Under the slogan “Sustainable Chemistry 2030”, the company works together with others in the petrochemical cluster at Stenungsund, Sweden, to create a global hub for sustainable practices in the industry. In 2017, a new sustainability ambition was announced: Finite Material Neutral.

Perstorp is back at the forefront of plastics development, with a focus on resource efficiency and sustainable solutions. ”Our current offering includes biodegradable Capa, the glass-like plastic Akestra, and an ftalate-free plasticiser for PVC called Pevalen”, says Linda Zellner, director of Innovation at Perstorp. Photo: Perstorp.

”We are looking at raw materials, water management, energy, waste and metal use in catalysts. The ambition is to turn Perstorp into a company that does not contribute to climat change or to the depletion of natural resources. Switching to renewable resources, alternatively closing the loops and recycle or reuse materials”, Anna Berggren says.

Within the initiative, a product range called Pro-Environment Polyols was released in fall 2017. Polyols are used in paints, adhesives and synthetic oils, and the new products made Perstorp the first manufacturer to offer all of the important varieties in a renewable kind. The products received the Frost & Sullivan sustainability award for biobased materials in 2018.

”The interest on the market for renewable products is growing. We are currently in the early phase of a transition across the value chains; without renewable products, you won’t be on the market at all in the future”, Anna Berggren concludes.

The article was published in October 2018.