Gert-Jan Gruter, Chief Technology Officer, Avantium, considers how the vision of a bio-based future can be achieved. 

Brands around the globe are under increasing pressure to meet sustainability targets. As the world continues to push for a renewable economy, these brands are turning to the bio-based processing industry for solutions. However, a key issue that the bio-based industry is facing is ensuring that these solutions and technologies are delivering real, tangible value.

To do this, the industry need to leverage market insights, implement a solid commercialisation strategy, and understand how technologies can be adapted to current needs. By bringing greater awareness around bio-based processes, consumers and brands can ensure they are investing in, buying, and creating products that have a positive environmental impact, and accelerate the transition towards a sustainable future.

Consumer demand for sustainability

Consumers are increasingly demanding greater sustainability in all aspects of their lives, driving brands to look for sustainable options when creating products. Major brands have previously argued that sustainable alternatives would not deliver return on investments. However, this no longer seems to be the case.

In a collaboration with the University of Amsterdam, we recently released a study on consumer behaviour. According to our research, we found that almost three quarters of respondents are willing to pay more for goods that are known to be sustainable. Interestingly, our insights found that one of the main drivers behind this motivation is the desire to be “seen as green”. Understanding this positive driver for mass-market bio-based processing allows businesses to tailor products to market needs. Consumers want products that have a positive, sustainable impact, and adapting to consumer needs will be essential for an effective commercialisation strategy.

The road to commercialization

Even with the best technological innovation, it still needs to sell. Currently, bio-based feedstock is the only alternative for fossil feedstocks to produce plastic materials. New technologies can take a long time to bring up to scale, and most bio-based technologies are currently at an early stage of development. The bio-based technology industry needs to plan the steps in between demonstration stage and full commercial scale, so that they can become cost-competitive and deliver larger production scales.

It is generally ideal to give the market something new. However, if a company is offering a new product that has the same performance as the previous one, then the only way of being competitive is to offer this product at a lower price. While there appears to be a gap in the market for commercialised bio-based polyethylene, its properties are similar to its fossil-based counterpart, so the only way to differentiate is through price. Bio-based companies should generally avoid falling into a situation like this, unless they can ensure that the feedback is used in the best possible way.

Plastic packaging production is expected to triple by 2050, so the bio-based technology industry should be focused on making sure demand is met with alternative sustainable solutions. Companies will be in a better position to meet this demand if they are producing sustainable, cost-effective and high-performing products.

The environmental value

Beyond sales, bio-based products or technologies need to also deliver environmental value. While consumers are proactively educating themselves on environmental issues, there remains confusion in some areas, making balancing consumer satisfaction with environmental value challenging.

For instance, many consumers often get fixated on biodegradability, thinking that perhaps a plastic that ‘returns to nature’ is more environmentally friendly. While biodegradability can combat plastic accumulation, it does not cushion feedstock, and turns polymers into carbon dioxide (CO2). This then gets released into the atmosphere, and in addition, plastics have no fertiliser or compost value.

To strike the right balance, the goal should be to create plastic that is designed for recycling. This not only creates a circular economy of carbon, but can also enable biodegradability in an ‘acceptable’ time period if the product ends up in nature. Additionally, it is essential to consider the environmental impact of the production phase of products that are chemically identical to fossil-based counterparts. This includes energy consumption and resource depletion, as well as the effect of output emissions and waste.

Currently, there is a great opportunity within bio-based processing to define the feedstock that will be used as the gold standard. For example, by focusing on glucose instead of oil as a feedstock, the industry can make materials that are better suited to a biomass feedstock, such as polyesters, polyamides and polyurethanes, all of which have great closed-loop recyclability potential and, in many cases, biodegradability. These novel bio-based plastics are designed for reusing, recycling, and can degrade in a few years, rather than hundreds, avoiding endless accumulation in nature.

Glucose can be used sustainably as a feedstock by utilising sources (such as residues) where glucose would normally be a waste product. This approach to industry waste is key to a circular future. We can apply this same concept to CO2 with Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage. When paired with an electro-catalytic platform, CO2 can be used as a feedstock to develop high value chemicals, and eventually liquid fuels for transport, to replace products previously made from fossil feedstocks. This would allow companies to offset their CO2 emissions, and feed this waste product to different product streams.

A brighter, circular future

As governments around the world continue to impose further regulations on single-use plastics, and the industry transitions from fossil to biomass feedstocks, we can expect to see more products with more exciting and surprising properties. These properties, coupled with dedicated lifecycle analysis, are the key to commercialising effective technologies and increasing the demand for them.

This is an exciting time for the bio-based processing industry. However, the industry needs to adopt best practices to successfully move towards a sustainable future. By making bio-based products more mainstream, as well as continue to provide reliable, well-researched information around sustainability to consumers, the industry can leverage its influence on brands to generate a greater, more positive impact on the world, so that we can smoothly transition to a truly fossil-free world.