Estonian plastics sector innovates as it targets overseas markets
Estonia, long known for developing its high-tech sector, innovation, and environment-friendly businesses, has over the years seen its plastics sector gain increasing momentum. Export sales have expanded from beyond the neighbouring Nordic and Baltic countries, to as far east even as China.
Volumes, too, have shot up: the production of primary resins and plastics by Estonian manufacturers reached 11,807.7 tonnes in the period January-August (2019), an increase of 132.8% compared to the same period in the previous year.
International business statistics service Statista estimates that the revenue from Estonian-made plastic packaging goods specifically will generate Ä62.5m in receipts by 2023. Philipp Huhn, head of B2C market outlooks at Statista projected that revenue from the Estonia-based manufacture of plastic plates, sheets, tubes and profiles will hit €71.3m by 2023.
According to Statistics Estonia (Eesti Statistika), Estonian plastics companies have grown their turnover consistently, with a combined industry total of €369.6m achieved in 2017, up from €340.3 million in 2016 and €303.1 million in 2015.
According to Statistics Estonia, the country boasts some 200 plastics manufacturing companies today, employing all the conventional processing technologies: standard injection moulding, film and pipe extrusion, pneumatic moulding, rotational moulding, vacuum forming, machining and the moulding of foam products. It is a sector consisting largely of small-and-medium sized enterprises that are notable for their ability to adapt to the ongoing changes in the market, in particular the growing demand for greener production methods and recycled goods.
Working on recycling
Its comparatively weak record on plastics recycling in Europe was a key motivation for the Estonian plastics sector to improve its performance in this area.
Estonia currently has one of the lowest plastic packaging recycling rates in the European Union (EU), according to EU statistical agency Eurostat: 24.6% compared to the EU average of 42%. One reason is the launch of operations by a co-generation waste-to-power incinerator at Iru power plant in 2013, which has had the unintended effect of slowing the development of both recycling and single-use plastics regulations. Littering, too is a major concern. According to data obtained from Blastic, a European project aimed at reducing plastic waste in the Baltic Sea, each Estonian generates an estimated 51kg of plastic waste annually – a large portion of which, it is argued, ends up polluting the Baltic Sea.
Faced with weak collection systems, Estonia’s plastics sector has turned to importing waste feedstock and innovative technologies, including a number of novel chemical processes to create biodegradable products.
Nores Plastic Ltd, based in the capital of Talinn, is one such waste importing company, sourcing plastic waste from north and central Europe and exporting processed plastic to Asia and back to other European countries. The company processes all types of thermoplastics, and currently exports more than 17,000 tonnes annually, with a turnover of €5m, having secured a Chinese AQSIQ licence for exporting to China.
The number of Estonian companies working on the development of biodegradable and compostable plastics is also growing. Estonia’s plastics sector is rapidly establishing the production of recyclable and compostable shopping bags, for instance.
And Hallar Meybaum, executive director of the Estonian Chemical Industry Association (Eesti Keemiatoostuse Liit), told Plastics News Europe that there was a limit to how far the sector can rely on plastic waste imports, especially if companies are aiming to work with higher volumes. This would be the case, even if Estonia increased its domestic plastic recycling rates: “Because monomers cannot be combined more than three times, I don’t believe that there exists the capacity in Estonia to build up such chemical plants for plastics recycling, because there is not enough raw material of plastic waste,” said Meybaum.