Here are 5 things you need to know about biobased materials
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Here are 5 things you need to know about biobased materials

The need for society to reduce its dependency on oil is something that we can all agree on. The fossil sources will not be around forever and if we’re not willing to dramatically change our way of life, we need to find new sustainable sources to replace the fossil ones with.

Normally, the first thing that pops into one’s mind when thinking about oil dependency are fossil fuels and different transportation systems, but there’s another important part of the problem that is often overlooked – petrochemicals.

Petrochemicals are used as building blocks for plastics, electronics, clothing and a whole bunch of other things – and the demand for these chemicals is increasing by the day.

“Petrochemicals are set to account for more than a third of the growth in world oil demand by 2030”

Last year, the International Energy Agency (IEA) released a major study, which concluded that petrochemicals soon will be the largest driver of world oil demand, surpassing cars, trucks and aviation. According to the study, petrochemicals are set to account for more than a third of the growth in world oil demand by 2030, and nearly half of the growth by 2050.

As a reaction to this global threat, chemists are thinking of ways to solve the problem by creating similar building blocks extracted from sources other than oil. One solution is to derive building blocks from biomass, creating what is more commonly known as biobased materials.

Many industries have realised the potential of biobased materials and everything that comes along with them. By producing materials from renewable biobased sources instead of depleting fossil sources, the company in question will not only be able to contribute to a reduced carbon footprint but also elevate the company’s sustainability profile.

The demand for more sustainably-sourced materials has made the production of biobased materials grow rapidly during the last couple of years, and the increase is expected to continue in the coming years. This is especially true for the bioplastics market, since the demand for plastics ­– the key driver for petrochemicals – has nearly doubled since the year 2000.

“Many industries have realised the potential of biobased materials and everything that comes along with them”

The potential and opportunities connected to biobased materials are huge, and many exciting solutions are already on the market. One example are new plastic varieties such as PHA and PLA, which can be produced using bacteria, and are both biodegradable and compostable in industrial conditions.

At Marketplace, we’re actively promoting biobased alternatives, considering them a good step towards creating more sustainable products. Today, several biobased alternatives in different sectors are available on the website, for example:

Cyrene – a bioderived and safe solvent that has proven to be effective in a range of applications.

Proviplast 1944 – a non-phthalate biobased plasticiser for low temperature applications.

miDori bioSoft – a plant seed oil-based softener for cotton and cotton-blend textiles.

Biobased materials may seem as a great solution – and to certain extent they truly are – but it’s a bit more complicated than you might think. There are pitfalls and aspects worth considering that shouldn’t be forgotten.

For this reason, we have listed five things about biobased materials worth remembering:

1. How sustainable are the sources?

Biobased building blocks can come from a wide array of different raw materials, for example corn, sugar cane and wood. One thing that they all have in common is that they’re crops and need space, soil, water and light to grow. There have been doubts as to what impact a shift towards growing crops for biobased building blocks instead of food would have on society and the environment, and how sustainable such a shift would be.

At the moment, there seems to be no immediate threat to the total food production, but nevertheless, aspects such as where the crop has been cultivated and harvested play a vital role in ensuring overall sustainability. In conclusion, the source and supply chain of the raw material must be understood and considered when evaluating biobased alternatives.

2. The intrinsic properties won’t change

When it comes to chemicals, hazardous properties are hazardous properties – no matter where the building blocks come from. In other words, chemicals aren’t inherently safe just because they are produced from biobased building blocks. DEHP or BPA are, for example, just as hazardous to human health and the environment when produced from biomass as they are when produced from fossil sources.

3. The plastic waste burden won’t be reduced

As with the previous point, biobased plastics are still plastics – and producing biobased versions, of for example PE or PET, will not decrease the production of plastics nor reduce the plastic waste burden. Just because a plastic bag – or anything else for that matter – is produced from sugar cane it doesn’t mean that it’s compostable, it will still take several hundred years for it to break down. Many plastics also break down into microplastic particles, which is a huge environmental problem found in all corners of the world – even in remote locations such as the Antarctic.

4. The market is small but has huge potential

The market for biobased materials is still very small. Biobased plastics, for example, only make up 1-2% of the total plastics market. It’s therefore necessary to understand that even though the potential for biobased materials is huge and the market is growing rapidly with increasing demand, the shift to biobased alternatives might not be as fast as one might want or expect – the fact is that many years still remain until biobased materials will be able to reach the same volumes as fossil-based materials.

5. Biobased innovation will be worth the investment

Biobased innovation requires research and development, which is both expensive and economically unreliable. Start-ups have a hard time finding funds and larger companies are sometimes reluctant to invest a lot of money in a solution where the market share is still very small.

Lately however, we have seen many companies promising to use biobased materials in their future production, which is great.

With depleting fossil sources and a greater focus on sustainability from companies, initiatives connected to biobased innovation will most likely give a greater return of investment since the future demand surely lies in these materials.

Dr. Jonatan Kleimark
Senior Chemicals Advisor