Chemicals

Ecol Studio, visit to the laboratories

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On the occasion of the Aticelca 2022 Congress held in Pescia (Italy), we visited the facility of one of the largest analysis laboratories in the paper industry. An Italian reality that has been able to grow beyond national borders.

Compliance with stringent safety and recyclability parameters, functionality but also biodegradability and environmental sustainability. The demands that paper has to satisfy are increasingly numerous and derive, in part, from a specific market demand and, in part, from the need to comply with regulatory and legislative provisions.

Compliance with all these parameters necessarily depends on the work of research laboratories, fundamental allies of paper manufacturers and the entire supply chain.

On the sidelines of the Aticelca Congress 2022, we had the opportunity to viist the facility of Ecol Studio spa on the occasion of its 40th year of activity.

Rooted in the world of paper

Founded in Lucca (Italy) in 1982, where it is still headquartered today, the company operates in various fields: from environmental and health and safety, from the world of materials in contact with foodstuffs to the sustainability sector, with a particular focus on the paper industry from which it derives around 70% of its business.

The experience gained over the years has also accompanied the growth of the company that today has no less than 10 offices in Italy and 2 offices abroad – Ecol Studio Consulting AB in Sweden and Ecol Studio UK Ltd in the UK. These two entities, both launched in 2018, specialise in Moca – food contact materials – services for the paper industry.

«Our strengths in this sector» says Giacomo Belluomini, Area Sales Manager Moca  Ecol Studio, «are the more than 270 employees, the laboratories with state-of-the-art instrumentation, and the distinctive skills we possess, not only in the food contact materials sector, but also in the area of environmental sustainability». Precisely to meet the demands in the sensitive area of food contact, the company has set up an additional laboratory in the province of Pavia (Italy), Sepack Lab, with specific expertise in the Moca sector. «Today, our facility, having also acquired this additional laboratory, is able to offer an all-round service related to food contact materials». 

The paper world

Ecol Studio’s laboratories offer specialised services for different areas: water, sludge, soil and waste, air and working environments, physical agents, food and surfaces and, of course, paper and food contact materials. During our visit to the Lucca site – which we carried out under the expert guidance of Cristina Lugli, Ecol Studio’s sustainability&product safety project manager – the focus was mainly on the paper recyclability test and the different steps of the process required to declare a material recyclable in the paper fraction.

The know-how developed by the company over the years on paper and cardboard articles and their production processes is such that its technical experts are familiar with their peculiarities and criticalities. At its laboratories, chemical and microbiological analyses are carried out, according to Italian and Member State regulations, on the safety and conformity of paper products produced and marketed in Italy and abroad, for every type of industry and for large-scale retail trade – organised distribution.

A work of analysis and expertise that has become increasingly complex over the years. A whole range of new materials has also been appearing on the paper market for some time now – the Aticelca congress, in its various editions, was the occasion to present some of these innovations. Some materials are standardised, for others the lack of standardisation makes even laboratory work more complex.

A problem that recurs for different types of products; while for plastics, for example, there is a positive list and harmonised legislation, in the case of other materials there is still no shared legislation. In the case of paper, on the other hand, there are specific regulations of individual member states, and Italy is a typical example.

Papers, Mocas and Special Materials

A particularly important section of the Lucchese laboratories is, as mentioned above, food contact.

In the case of Moca, specific analyses are requested by companies to assess and investigate possible interactions between packaging and food. Tests, carried out according to mandatory regulations, which often concern not only the packaging, i.e. the paper product or composite material, but also the food machinery used in the production phase.

In the Lucchese company’s laboratories, all types of tests related to the food contact sector are carried out according to Italian, French and German regulations, but also according to the US FDA (Food and Drug Administration), and also according to Japanese and Chinese regulations, for companies wishing to export their products to these countries. In the case of Chinese regulations, these are only preliminary checks – which are increasingly being requested – as Italian laboratories do not have authorisation, which is only granted to facilities located in China.

Among the various analyses, particular attention is paid to the Risk Assessment – carried out based on the actual conditions of use of the product, the technology of the materials, and information from industry categories and the international warning system.

Within the Lucchese facility, and again in food contact, there is also an area dedicated to the detection of organic substances. There are instruments for each group of substances to ensure that there is no cross contamination. Some instruments are also closed and separate from the rest, and assessments are carried out for substances such as dioxins, with lower detection limits. Dioxin analyses are generally carried out for the environmental part, however, there is an increasing demand for analyses for dioxins and pesticides also on paper and cardboard, as product designs are being developed using materials composed not only of pulp but also, for example, of agro-food industry waste.

The complexity of the food contact materials sector therefore requires skills that must necessarily be very high.

End-of-life analysis: being recyclable

An entire section of Ecol Studio’s laboratory is then dedicated to product end-of-life, i.e. Paper recyclability and compostability tests.

For the recyclability tests, real conditions are recreated, so a simulation is carried out in the laboratory with the procedures and instrumentation that a standard paper mill plant should have. «There are four main phases in the recyclability process,» explains Belluomini, «the initial phase of pulping the material, the screening, i.e. a sort of filtration that eliminates all the material that has failed to pulp, the analysis of the waste that emerges from this screening, specifically the screening of the coarse waste and, following this, the fine waste; and, finally, the final analyses carried out on the sheets created specifically in the laboratory and which concern adhesiveness and the presence of optical inhomogeneities».

The methods used are the UNI certified standard and the Aticelca evaluation system. Experts from the Lucca company also participate in the working group of 4evergreen, i.e. the Alliance of Cepi – Confederation of European Paper Industries – which brings together companies from the entire fibre-based packaging value chain, committed to increasing the sustainability performance of the sector. The Cepi group is carrying out an initial study to create a harmonised European method, which each Member State will then think about transposing and regulating internally. In particular, the European association is thinking of differentiating between papers that should go into standard mills, papers for deinking and specialty papers; thus developing three different guidelines.

A first document produced by the work of 4evergreen is entitled «Circularity by designGuideline for fibre-based packaging» and was published in 2022. It assesses the compatibility of materials and components with standard recycling processes. 

Assessing Compostability

Finally, regarding compostability, Ecol Studio is equipped with a reactor to study the level of compostability of paper. Two types of degradability are evaluated, that of «compost industrial» and that of «compost home». These are two different processes and conditions. The 36-month industrial test is much faster because it operates at higher temperatures, while home compostability takes a year because it is more difficult to achieve due to the lower temperature used.

In the composters, temperature, moisture, and oxygen flow are controlled and the entire compost, with the sample in the middle, is constantly monitored. During the test, the packing is reduced until it disintegrates, disappearing completely. The compost is passed through a sieve with a defined mesh and, finally, the product obtained is tested by seeding and growing a few plants. If everything goes smoothly, the sample can be defined as compostable according to the standard.

In addition to this, other types of control and certification are carried out, such as marine composting, analysis for obtaining the Re-Cycle label, which refers to recycling content, and assessments for obtaining the Bio-based label. Assessments for which there is a growing demand. 

As mentioned above, Ecol Studio does not deal exclusively with the paper world, although this remains its core business. Market requirements, with the design of innovative products and materials, and new regulations at national and European level – the SUP (single use plastic) Directive, to name but one – require us to open up to much broader areas and prepare to analyse an increasingly complex world.