Recycling as a first step towards circularity: the mission of Unilin Group
Unilin Group is Belgium's largest wood recycling company. Its chipboards already consist of more than 90% recycled wood. Unilin Group now wants to go down the same path with its other product categories. Last year the company showcased an absolute world first: thanks to a new technology developed in-house MDF can finally be recycled on an industrial scale. Time to take it to the next level and recycle even more, sustainability expert Lasse Six explains.
From its establishment in 1960, sustainability has been a part of the company's DNA. Unilin gave waste material from the local flax industry a new lease of life by processing it in loam boards. Meanwhile the flax industry has almost disappeared from the company’s home region of West Flanders and the flax in the loam boards has long since been replaced with wood. Reclaimed wood and waste wood, Lasse Six emphasises. This is wood that has reached the end of its useful life and is therefore saved from the incinerator. “Already our chipboards are composed of 90% recycled wood and 10% reclaimed wood.”
The recycled wood you use is waste wood sourced from demolition works and container parks. How safe is the wood that is processed in the boards?
Lasse Six: “Extremely safe. We systematically check whether the waste wood meets all legal requirements with regard to heavy metals and toxic substances. We not only recycle clean, untreated wood but also wood that contains glue and paint residues. Having this ability is pretty special. Over the past decade we invested millions in the development of the most cutting-edge cleaning and sorting machine currently available in our industry. This enables us to recycle a large percentage of the available waste wood, making us the country's largest wood recycling company. Nearly all the waste wood in Belgium that is not incinerated ends up at Unilin Group.”
How sustainable is the process used to prepare recycled and reclaimed wood for processing?
“The process is purely mechanic, there are no chemicals involved. Reclaimed wood, for instance residue from sawmills or wood from verge maintenance along the motorway, is usually very clean. At our sites we debark the trunk and branches and then shred them into the size we need for our chipboards or MDF panels.
Recycled wood requires several additional steps. First the wood is cut up into more manageable fractions. These then undergo a series of treatment processes: magnets, sieves, vibrating conveyors and windsifters. The latter create an airflow to separate heavier and lighter pieces. The end result is a clean wood stream. The side flows such as metals, glass, plastics, pebbles, etc. are separated and, if possible, also recycled. The clean wood is subsequently machined into the appropriate size. The resulting chips are processed into new panels. This is all done in-house.”
Your manufacturing process for chipboards can already be called circular. You want to do the same with all production processes. How is that coming along? For instance, can you also recycle MDF panels?
“We can, actually. Last year we invented and developed a proprietary technology called Osiris, a world first. Before it was impossible to recycle MDF on an industrial scale because small glued fibres are extremely hard to separate without sacrificing quality. The technology we developed is best compared to a pressure cooker. The MDF is heated under high pressure using steam until it falls apart into small fibres. This process is called steam expansion. It's truly brilliant in its simplicity. This innovation is a huge step forward in terms of recycling. By 2030, our MDF panels must consist of 25% recycled wood as opposed to 10% today. We are currently scaling up to meet this target.”
That’s impressive but knowing Unilin Group it won't stop there. What other wood products are you looking to recycle?
"We would also like to be able to recycle our laminate floors. This involves a number of additional challenges. The core of a laminate floor consists of HDF planks that are much like MDF but they are finished on both sides with multiple additional layers in order to turn them into aesthetically pleasing, wear-resistant and stable floors. These extra layers make the recycling process more complex but we are taking up the gauntlet.”
Who are the brainiacs that come up with these recycling solutions?
“Our R&D teams at Unilin Panels and Unilin Flooring do a lot of work in-house but we have also partnered up with universities and other companies in a European research project that specifically targets sustainable recycling solutions for laminate. For the sustainability aspect we not only consider the recycling process but also the collection and preconditioning.”
Did you know?
Recycling more reduces the climate impact of our raw materials. The combination with circular production processes brings Unilin Group ever closer to realising its climate objectives: 42% CO2 reduction by 2030 and climate neutrality by 2050.