New plastics solutions from the Plastics Innovations Competence Center (PICC)
Ana Ferreira (BioMarine Community Manager)
The plastics topic has been vastly discussed among the BioMarine Community by the Blue Bioplastics Consortium, which is unleashing the use of new alternative materials based on marine resources. Nevertheless, there are still many open questions and challenges regarding the best strategy to implement this as it requires a systemic approach involving: innovative technologies and new business and socio-economic models. This systemic vision is the base behind the Plastics Innovations Competence Center (PICC) that is dedicated to innovating the Plastic industry.
We talked to Dr. Rudy Koopmans, the Director of PICC, about this vision and the work he and his team have been developing to put it into practice.
[CLICK HERE to access the PDF document of the interview]
Leading the future of plastics at PICC
PICC is located in Fribourg, Switzerland, and is focused on bridging the gap between academia and industry in a socially responsible way by offering innovative and nature-inspired solutions to the Plastic industry, some of them from the sea. This entails that Dr. Rudy Koopmans, the Center Director, and his team are working closely with the main stakeholders to provide them with more efficient and sustainable solutions that can convey, ultimately, a strategic and differentiated advantage in the market.
Dr. Koopmans shared what the Center’s main goal is all about– “Our ambition is to change the way we, as a society, act on plastics in a different way from what we have been doing for the last 70 years. For that, the PICC is looking for alternative approaches on how to re-design the plastics that exist today and how to use new renewable resources (including marine ones) to offer new opportunities that go beyond the current plastics offerings, and thus circumvent some of the serious challenges we are facing with the existing linear plastics business models”. Working based on a systemic vision and not “just” on the plastic replacement, Dr. Koopmans brings us some needed clarification on the main challenges this process entails and how to overcome them. Additionally, he proposes some very interesting strategies that can guide us onto the path for unleashing the true potential of blue bioplastics in the market, in a really sustainable way!
Some clarifications on (bio)plastics before we go any further
Regarding bioplastics (and their biodegradable variants), we usually have a lot of misconception on nomenclature and its real meaning. To clarify this, we asked Dr. Koopmans to give us an overall understanding – “A bioplastic typically means that you can use a renewable biomass source where you take a plant for example and turn it into a chemical - a monomer, for example ethylene or propylene. After that, you use this renewable chemical in the exact same manufacturing processes as for the current fossil fuel-based plastics, and you end up with bio(-based) plastics (bio-PP, bio-PE, bio-PET) that are essentially the same as the petroleum based ones. So, the after-use problem remains!”.
Regarding the biodegradability, Dr. Koopmans also calls attention to common misunderstandings - “Biodegradable is a term that one needs to be careful with, because any organic material is biodegradable, it’s just a matter of time! The problem of these “biodegradable” bioplastics – they are typically made from renewable plant-based chemicals (PLA, PHA) - is that they are also marketed as compostable. Composting means that microorganisms need to eat these products to turn them into CO2 (or methane) and water, which only happens under certain conditions (of temperature, humidity, pressure) in about 6-12 weeks!”. So, what happens when you toss them out? “If you throw them in the environment, they will indeed degrade faster than fossil-fuel based plastics, but still at a very slowly pace (can be years), while first, just like all plastics, creating microplastics and eventually the chemicals!”. This way, we are only fixing the source, while the negative environmental impact of after use remains.
So, what would be the best solution after all?
Dr. Koopmans explains that the best next approach would be to - “Take the real bioplastics (from biomass, such as plants) – carbohydrates and proteins - and use these to make products”. The advantage here, is that, as he continues –“You end up with a product that is already intrinsically circular because it is a natural product, and you can either reuse it, compost it, use it as feed or food, or as a new feedstock to start the circular process all over again”. Either way, no waste is created, and we have, from the very beginning, a potentially fully recyclable and circular polymeric plastic material!
Hence, in order to satisfy an exponentially growing world population (closing in on 8 billion) that needs plastics materials to guarantee food safety, health, buildings, transport and communication tools to name a few, Dr. Koopmans highlights 3 main steps, that need to work in a symbiotic way – “First, the current fossil-fuel based plastics products need to be redesigned for after-use recycle including development of infra-structures and methodologies to stop environmental pollution immediately. Second, priority needs to be given to the production scaling and use of polymers developed by nature itself using the billions of tons of globally wasted biomass, creating a system that is truly circular. Third, and for the long term, as even non-food-feed biomass is not infinitely available, the whole process of circularity of materials in nature needs to be much better understood. It encompasses developing novel nature-like symbiotic, self-organizing polymers by synthetically mimicking proteins and carbohydrates that guarantee final products, which fit the feed or food closed loop of natural ecosystems”.
Some of the solutions we have been sharing in the BioMarine Community follow precisely this approach, proving that marine biomass resources hold a huge opportunity in this field!
What would be the best strategy to implement this solution?
BioMarine has dedicated major efforts for working together with technology providers and key players in the industry to design a strategy that effectively and sustainably boosts the use of blue bioplastics (polymers originated from marine biomass such as algae, fish scales, crustaceans shells), according to the principles described above by Dr. Koopmans. However, defining a strategy is one thing but creating the associated roadmap as to the actual steps to take is a complex task involving many stakeholders. Nevertheless, Dr. Koopmans provides some recommendations based on his 30+ years’ experience working with the Plastics industry: “The approach of direct replacement (from fossil fuel-based plastics to bio-based plastics) doesn’t properly work due to scalability, meaning that in the end the cost and risks are considered far too high by the industry to invest and change its linear operational model! So, to make circularity of materials a reality we need to come up with a different model, not only with scaled technology giving priority to nature-based polymers, but equally with novel ways of presenting this technology. Also, this should be combined with a different socio-economic model where the ones involved benefit by becoming engaged in valuing the plastics we use, allowing everybody to become an entrepreneur and be a participating member of society, supported by a highly digital and networked world".
Although this is a big challenge, it is also a major opportunity to start working on this now! But what does this really mean? Dr. Koopmans continues to explain – “Nowadays, there are great opportunities to leverage the local biomass resources to produce renewable materials, especially in developing countries, that progressively offer effective alternatives to avoid the current pollution issues they are facing. It creates with the assistance of digital technologies novel, diverse, and federated socio-economic models that are circular and sustainable for the next generations”.
Working on the perception of value and accountability
In Dr. Koopmans’s opinion, the above strategy needs to be implemented with complementary actions that can ease the transition and really push the industry (and consumers) to change behaviors. First, we have the notion of value, as Dr. Koopmans clearly explained – “Plastics are perceived to have no value. When companies produce plastics, they pass it along the supply chain, making them someone else’s problem. When we buy plastics products, we become stakeholders, but as we toss them away, they become someone else’s problem again. In the end, it’s this lack of accountability and the low value perception that creates a waste-full environment”. Just bringing new nature-based materials into this mode of societal operation will not change anything.
To make everyone accountable and perceive plastics as highly valuable three principles need to be implemented: 1) make all stakeholders shareholders; 2) individualize and benefit accountability, and 3) supportive legislation i.e. create the contextual incentives to transition from a linear to a circular socio-economic model. But how can we do this? Yes, technology is the answer! Digital technology enables us to keep track of who produces what, and what destination it takes, which can make everybody a shareholder as an individual entrepreneur with accountable benefits. Simultaneously, legislation can foster and incentivize a technology transformation from petroleum- to biorefinery based value chains.
“Legislation supporting novel socio-economic models combined with digital technology enabling engagement of all are the route to a truly circular ecosystem”, concludes Dr. Koopmans.
Want to know more info about PICC and the work Dr. Koopmans is developing?
Click HERE or contact Dr. Koopmans through the BioMarine Community!