According to research published by the WWF, approximately five grams of microplastics end up in the human body every week. This is equivalent to around one credit card a week. As a keen hiker, I’ve long been on the lookout for alternative materials to fleeces, which are notorious for the amount of microplastics they shed with each wash. Whilst the health impacts of long-term exposure to microplastics remain to be seen, one thing that is relatively clear is that cells are not keen on the unwelcome intrusion of these tiny plastic particles.
Currently, around a quarter of the world’s annual textile fibre needs are met by cotton. However, increasing cotton production is no longer an option, as it competes for land with food production. Not only this: cotton cultivation requires substantial amounts of water in particularly dry countries. Polyester and other oil-based textile fibres account for 65 per cent of textile fibre consumption and cause significant waste problems. As consumers start to grow aware of the extent of the problems associated with the textile industry, they are demanding alternatives. One solution under consideration is cellulose-based regenerated fibres.
Here in Finland, we have plenty of experience in the industrial utilisation of wood. We also have a workforce trained and skilled in the worlds of both cellulose and chemicals. As a result, we are exceptionally well-equipped to respond to the changed needs of the textile industry with cellulose-based fibres.
One example of this is the textile fibre demo plant established jointly by Metsä Spring and Itochu Corporation in Äänekoski, where textile fibre is produced using a direct-dissolution method, with a focus on technological development and market testing. What makes the fibre extraordinary is that it is produced from standard paper pulp that contains hemicelluloses. The fabrics produced from these fibres are soft and have great drape.
The pilot plant brings together a great deal of Finnish expertise. For many years now, Metsä Group has supported basic research through a variety of projects, through which it has accumulated knowledge about enzymes, solvents and spinning technology. Over the course of a decade, a substantial number of publications and doctoral theses have been produced, and they have been accompanied by a brand-new set of professionals specialising in the area. It’s a real honour to be part of this group and to see how this knowledge gained from different sectors is woven into one process that will bring a brand-new forest-based industry to Finland.