Plastics, made from plants? The bio-based economy makes it possible. It is the field of study of Yvonne van der Meer, professor of Sustainability of Chemicals and Materials. This Friday, she will be a keynote speaker at our Workplace on circular economy. And that doesn’t just mean recycling our existing products, she says in this interview.
Bioplastics have been made from plants for some time now. The main reason is to reduce the climate impact of plastics: after all, you are switching from a fossil product, made from oil, to a product that comes from nature. Such a natural product also contains CO2, but this has only recently been removed from the atmosphere and that does not lead to additional CO2 emissions in the long term.
Sounds logical. However, bioplastics can also have negative properties, says Van der Meer: “For example, you need fertilisers and water to grow plants. Also, there is more competition with biofuels and this creates scarcity in land use. Not to even mention the food scarcity.” This all leads to a major discussion, to which Van der Meer contributes through science: what are actually suitable organic raw materials for bioplastics? “We have now agreed that we should not use food crops for this.”
“If it stays with theoretical sustainability, it is of little use to humanity.”
In addition, Van der Meer is looking at the economic feasibility of sustainable and bio-based initiatives. “I don’t just want to calculate whether something is sustainable and feasible, I also want to contribute to a more sustainable world,” she says. “That only happens if there is a company that actually markets the product. Otherwise, you as a consumer cannot choose it. Then it only stays with theoretical sustainability and that is of little use to humanity.”
Bio not necessarily sustainable
Van der Meer leads a research group at Maastricht University that supports the transition from a linear and fossil to a circular and bio-economy. Before that, she performed sustainability calculations as a consultant. At that time she also came into contact with bio-materials a lot. “I found out that it is not by definition sustainable at all to switch to a bio-based raw material,” she says. “Then I thought: there should be a research group that finds out when such a bio-raw material is sustainable and when it is not.”
Sustainability calculations are still often done when products are already finished, explains Van der Meer. “That’s great when an industry goes onto the market and wants to demonstrate how sustainable the product is. But if you’re looking for sustainable solutions, I think it’s important to look at that at an early stage. When you still have choices to choose a certain raw material or production method, so that you can actually design something sustainable, instead of looking at whether something is sustainable only afterwards.”
Most people have already read, or at least seen, a few things about the circular economy; the well-known green circle that goes around. This usually refers to recycling, says Van der Meer. “But with current collection and technology, the quality of a product decreases enormously if you recycle it. You almost never get the same.”
“Just circulating our current materials simply won’t get us there.”
Van der Meer is hopeful that we will get better at those technological processes. “But even then, you will need more than just circulating existing materials in our society. The world population is still growing — and with it, the demand for products. Circulating only our current materials simply won’t get us there. Even if you could use them all again — and you can’t, because they often get too dirty, get lost or aren’t even collected at all.”
Furthermore, fossil raw materials are running out, she says. “But we have also seen that the climate problem is much bigger. We will have already emitted too many greenhouse gases before it is all gone.” That’s where the bio-economy comes in. To make materials, you need carbon and other atoms. They have to come from somewhere, explains Van der Meer: “If they are not allowed to come from fossil raw materials, we have three other options: you can get them from biomass, you can get them from recycled products or waste, and you can use CO2 capture it directly from the air and deploy it. All three paths will be followed, they will all be necessary to fulfil our need for the materials we use every day.”
An essential part of the circular economy
In addition, Van der Meer is a member of the scientific committee of the Circular Bio-based Europe Joint Undertaking (CBE JU), a public-private partnership to promote the bio-based industry as part of the circular economy. “Biomass must become an essential part of the circular economy, so that it also becomes a bio-economy,” says Van der Meer.
“The whole idea of a circular economy is inspired by nature,” she says. “There, you exclusively have cycles and there is no waste at all. As beautiful as it is in nature, it is still so difficult in the technical circle: the picture looks nice, but if you look at the quantity and quality of recycling, we are still miles away from the natural circle. We are still 95 to 98 percent linear in our economy.”
In the CBE JU, Van der Meer and her colleagues explicitly look not only at the sustainability of raw materials, but at the entire life cycle of a product. For example, you do not want a bioplastic to last less long than the ‘regular’ variant, or for degradation products to end up in the environment.
And then there is the waste problem. You cannot solve that by definition with bioplastics, explains Van der Meer: “You did use a sustainable raw material, but that does not automatically mean that it is also biodegradable. Chemical processes can turn it into a plastic product that is not so easily degradable.”
“Products are also made from seaweed and the organic waste at your home.”
Industries are also an important part of the CBE JU. Companies are letting us know which breakthroughs in bio-based materials they need. Research consortia can then register and let them know how they want to approach this. The best proposals are funded, says Van der Meer. “A good mix is made of early developments at universities and scaling up for the market, so that a diverse portfolio of investments is created. There is also diversity in the types of raw materials: first these were only plant-based products, now products are also made from seaweed and from the organic waste at your home.”
From clothing to cutlery: the possibilities are (almost) endless
The best-known example of a successful bio-based product is made from a food crop, namely sugar. Sugar can now also be obtained from agricultural residues, so that there is no longer any competition with food. “That is not yet widely used,” says Van der Meer, “but a whole range of products can be made from sugar: plastics, coatings, pharmaceuticals…”
Avantium is such a company that makes ‘PEF bottles’, entirely from bio-sugar and also recyclable. That is better than the fossil version: PET bottles. In addition, clothing, carpets, ink, paint, cutlery, cleaning agents and cosmetics are now also available. There are hundreds of examples of initiatives that still need to be scaled up. “That is precisely why more attention and money is needed.”
Van der Meer does not see any major developments in the organic domain in China, which is ahead of Europe in many areas. She also still sees the US as a real fossil-leading country, but she believes that there is a lot of potential for the bio-economy there. “In principle, you can say that we are reasonably ahead of the troops in this area in Europe, for the time being.”
“You could say that the chemical industry has to adapt, but it is consumers who expect us to be able to buy beautiful products all year round.”
However, there are still major challenges to really get the circular transition in Europe off the ground. She sees the large-scale production of bio-based products as the most important hurdle. “The chemical industry is used to working with large quantities of raw materials all year round, with high quality and on a huge scale. You could say that the industry also has to adapt a bit, but it is consumers who expect us to be able to buy beautiful products all year round. The main challenge lies in that transition on a large scale.”
Finally, a change has to take place in how we think about materials and products, says Van der Meer. “In the beginning, we wanted to precisely imitate every product with biomass. In that case, products and consumers would not need to adapt; they could continue in the same way with everything. If a producer has to adapt to the design or production itself, the process often becomes more expensive. But that adjustment is ultimately necessary to achieve a truly sustainable product.”
Yvonne van der Meer is Professor Sustainability of Chemicals and Materials at the Faculty of Science and Engineering. She is scientific vice-director of the Aachen-Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials and member of the Educational Program Committee of the Master Biobased Materials.