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Genomics will not be harmed despite intense whaling

Fin whales are the second largest creatures on our planet, surpassed only by blue whales. They can reach a length of around 20 meters – and require up to two tons of food per day. Accordingly, they release enormous amounts of nutrients – with significant effects on ocean ecosystems. Industrial whaling, however, has significantly reduced their numbers. It was aimed at the tran of whales as raw material and was particularly intensive between 1880 and an international agreement in 1986. Today, the number of fin whales worldwide is estimated at about 100,000 animals; the species is considered endangered according to the Red List. A new study by scientists from the LOEWE Center for Translational Biodiversity Genomics (TBG), the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center (SBiK-F), and Icelandic and Swedish research institutions shows the consequences of their decimation for the populations and especially for the genomic diversity of fin whales. Fortunately, their results show no long-term genetic weakening of this species.

After fin whales were hunted in the early 20th century until local whaling industries collapsed in some places due to declining catches – such as in the waters around Norwegian Finnmark in 1904 – there were fears of glaring consequences, including extinction of the species due to inbreeding. For the study published in the journal “Molecular Biology and Evolution”, the scientists now examined 51 genomes of a North Atlantic fin whale population from Icelandic waters for the first time. Using the samples from 1989, 2009 and 2018, they developed demographic models that allow conclusions to be drawn about population changes over around 800 years. The analyses focused on whether whaling also affected the genetic diversity of fin whales.

The team concludes that whaling had a strong impact on populations in the North Atlantic, decimating them to as much as twenty percent of their previous size within about one hundred years. However, the team also showed that different populations were hit differently by whaling, as the genomes of some animals showed little or no trace of this population reduction.

“Looking at the genetic diversity of a species allows us to draw conclusions about whether and how well that species can adapt to new environmental conditions or changes in its population, or whether it is likely to go extinct. Therefore, genomic analysis can often reveal trends before they become overt. However, in the case of North Atlantic fin whales, we did not detect a significant loss of their diversity in the long-term perspective.”

– Magnus Wolf, lead author of the study

Other genetic consequences within the depleted fin whale stocks also appear to have failed to materialize. Neither did the scientists* find evidence of frequent inbreeding, where genomes become unnaturally similar, nor could a greater number of genetic defects be detected that would burden the population in the long term. “Such mutations occur all the time, but they are more noticeable in small populations because sometimes there are then no animals without the mutation left to prevail,” Wolf said.

So, compared to more endangered cetacean species such as the blue whale or North Atlantic right whale, current human impacts seem to be the main obstacle to fin whale recovery. These include increasing shipping traffic and pollution of the seas. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has classified fin whales as an endangered species on its Red List. Therefore, there is currently no all-clear for their situation, emphasizes Prof. Dr. Axel Janke, lead scientist of the study, scientific coordinator and spokesperson of the LOEWE Center TBG and also working at SBiK-F and the Institute for Ecology, Evolution and Diversity at Goethe University Frankfurt.

“It is fascinating how genomic insights can contribute to our picture of whale conservation. Genomics is emerging as a key technology not only for species conservation, but also helps us understand what biodiversity actually is and how we can use it. Whales are not only impressive animals, but despite their long lifespan of up to one hundred years and their body size, they also seem to develop hardly any tumors and are thus resistant to cancer. Deciphering the genomic mechanisms that cause this paradox could help us address one of the most consequential diseases in human history.”

 

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Recycling technology to increase value of recycled aseptic cartons in Brazil

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SIG today announces a BRL 10 million investment in innovative recycling technology that will enable polymers and aluminium from used aseptic carton packs to be recovered and sold separately for the first time on an industrial scale in Brazil. By expanding the range of applications for recycled materials from used aseptic cartons, SIG expects to increase their value by more than 50 percent.

“We are excited to bring to Brazil a new technology that will enable separation of aluminium and polyethylene layers from carton packs, thereby expanding the market for these materials and generating more value from the separated waste,” says Ricardo Rodriguez, President and General Manager for SIG Americas. “This project is the latest in a series of innovative collaborations led by SIG to boost collection and recycling rates for used aseptic cartons and grow the recycling chain in a sustainable way.”

 

Innovative recycling technology

The renewable paper board that makes up around 75 percent of aseptic carton packs on average can be separated for recycling in paper mills through Brazil’s existing recycling infrastructure. The polyethylene and aluminium mix (polyaluminium or PolyAl) left over from this process can be recycled into a robust material for purposes such as roofing, pallets and furniture.

SIG’s recycling plant will use innovative technology that makes it possible to separate the polyethylene from the aluminium in PolyAl to create a wider market and demand for these recycled materials. Developed over five years with project partner ECS Consulting, the new technology has already undergone a pilot project that proved the effectiveness of the chemical recycling process.

The new recycling plant is currently in construction in the state of Paraná. It is expected to begin operating in 2024 with an initial production capacity of 200 tonnes per month. Together with industry partners, SIG has also invested in a plant in Germany to separate polymers and aluminium from PolyAl that went into production in 2021.

 

Ethical collection programmes

Investing in new technology to create a wider market for recycled materials is an important step in increasing recycling rates for used aseptic cartons. SIG has already led the way with innovative programmes to support two other important steps: collection of used packaging from consumers and separation of that packaging to go into the right recycling streams.

SIG’s so+ma vantagens programme, run in partnership with NGO so+ma since 2018, enables people in underprivileged communities to collect loyalty points for bringing in waste for recycling. The points can then be exchanged for rewards, such as essential food products and skills training. SIG is now expanding this model to promote recycling and bring additional societal benefits to further municipalities in Brazil and beyond.

SIG also promotes public policies for selective waste collection in Brazil, and supports effective infrastructure and decent working conditions for waste collectors’ cooperatives as a seed investor in the Recicleiros Cidades programme. Set up with NGO Recicleiros in 2018, the programme is now operational in 13 municipalities and aims to reach 60 by 2027.

The focus on recycling in Brazil is part of SIG’s global Way Beyond Good commitment to enhance the positive environmental and social impact of its packs throughout their lifecycle.

“At SIG, we are committed to sourcing the materials that go into our packs sustainably. We are already the first aseptic carton producer to source 100 percent FSCTM-certified board and use ASI-certified aluminium,” says Isabela De Marchi, Sustainability Manager for SIG South America. “We are also determined to foster an ethical recycling chain that promotes collection and recycling of our packs after use in a way that supports communities, workers and the environment. The new recycling plant in Paraná takes us a step further on this journey by maximising the retained economic and environmental value of the materials recovered from aseptic cartons.”

 

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Use of renewable energy

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The construction of a vast solar installation at SIG’s production site in Linnich, Germany, will see SIG further extend its lead in the beverage carton industry in the use of renewable energy. The 10.25MWp system, made up of 22,300 photovoltaic solar panels, will be the largest photovoltaic system at an SIG plant to date.

“The thousands of solar panels we are installing in Linnich will double our on-site renewable energy capacity in Germany,” said Arnold Schuhwerk, Head of Category Polymers & Energy Global at SIG. “This latest investment shows that SIG is not only committed to continue making its beverage cartons with 100 percent renewable energy, but to continually improve the quality of that renewable energy through physical power purchase agreements.”

 

Maximising on-site capacity

SIG is already the first and only aseptic carton manufacturer to produce all its packs with 100 percent renewable energy globally since 2018.

The company recently secured physical power purchase agreements that will provide enough renewable energy capacity to power 100 percent of its carton packaging production in Germany from January 2023 – and the Linnich installation will enable more of this to come from its own sites.

Construction has begun on a gigantic ground-standing system of 20,600 panels that will occupy an 80,000 squarer meters area in front of the Linnich plant – that’s the equivalent of 11 soccer fields side by side. A further 1,700 panels will cover the plant’s rooftop to maximise potential to solar power on the site.

As the owner and operator of the Linnich photovoltaic system, Leipziger Stadtwerke will pass on the solar power generated directly to SIG through a long-term power purchase agreement. The power will go straight into the production of SIG carton packs at the site.

“Leipziger Stadtwerke is driving forward the expansion of renewable energies, including working with partners like SIG. The solar installation at the SIG plant in Linnich is another milestone towards the decarbonising of energy systems in Germany,” says Maik Piehler, Managing Director of Leipziger Stadtwerke. “We are pleased to be able to make an important contribution to this. The project is one of the largest photovoltaic self-supply systems with direct connection in Germany that is operated without using the public grid and without any subsidies on industrial land.”

 

Going Way Beyond Good for climate

SIG already doubled its on-site solar capacity in 2021 to 11.3MWp and plans to triple this again within the next year. The Linnich system will play a big part in this expansion, together with installations in development at other SIG plants in Germany, Saudi Arabia and Mexico.

 

The company’s focus on renewable energy is part of SIG’s Way Beyond Good Climate+ ambition that is driving down value chain carbon emissions for its business and its customers.

Use of renewable energy for carton packaging production has already avoided over half a million tonnes of CO2-equivalent and these savings will continue to grow. The new Linnich installation alone will generate enough renewable electricity to reduce more than 3,150 tonnes of carbon emissions a year.

 

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Commitment to sustainability

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EcoVadis, the world’s largest provider of corporate sustainability ratings, has presented Bilfinger SE with a Gold Award for sustainable, ethical and responsible business practices. The Group is thus among the top 5 percent of companies from the more than 100,000 throughout the world that EcoVadis analyzed.

“We are truly proud to receive this award. The results clearly show that the sustainability principle is firmly established in our Group structure and that it is actively embraced by our employees. At the same time, we see the award as an incentive for our future performance”, says Bilfinger Group CEO Thomas Schulz. “The impartial recognition from EcoVadis also serves as confirmation for our process industry customers that with Bilfinger they have a responsible and trustworthy partner at their side ready to help them successfully implement their own sustainability goals.”

The EcoVadis evaluation is based on a comprehensive catalog of questions in which the results of the criteria surveyed are grouped into the four topic areas including environment, labor & human rights, ethics and sustainable procurement. In the most recent survey, Bilfinger improved in both the environment category (from 70 to 80 points), in the labor & human rights category (from 60 to 70 points) and in the sustainable procurement category (from 40 to 50 points). In the ethics category, the same figure as in the previous year (60 points) was achieved. Overall, Bilfinger achieved a score of 68 from a possible 100 points in the annual survey conducted by EcoVadis. The industrial services provider thus surpassed its results from the previous year’s survey by eight points.

Bilfinger has been reporting on its sustainability activities on an annual basis since 2011 and has published an externally-audited non-financial report every year since 2018. In accordance with the Greenhouse Gas Protocol and as part of its current Annual Report, the Group has also formulated specific targets for its own carbon footprint in the form of a so-called “Sustainability Commitment”. This commitment calls for CO2 equivalents under Scope 1 and 2 to be successively reduced from around 60,000 metric tons in 2021 to ‘net zero’ by the end of 2030 at the latest.

Bilfinger is also increasingly providing its customers with valuable support to help them achieve their own sustainability goals. The Group’s customers face the challenge of securing their energy supply for the future and significantly reducing their carbon footprint. As a key component of the company’s growth strategy, Bilfinger targets an increase in revenues from energy transition and carbon reduction projects from approximately €500 million in 2021 to around €1 billion by 2024.

 

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