Closing the gap between biobased products and the commercial market

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Opening commercial markets for biobased products

Published on
May 3, 2017

The market share of biobased products will only increase if various challenges in the field of regulations, standardisation and image are tackled. Over the past three years, Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has been studying obstacles for biobased products in the market and the associated solutions in the Open-Bio project, an international research programme supported by the EU.

‘Biodegradable’; ‘biobased’; ‘compostable’ – all these terms suggest that a product has certain positive properties but do not immediately clarify what these properties are. In addition, the ‘based on renewable materials’ label is associated with an image of lower quality. Besides image issues, standardisation systems and regulations are not adequately established for new biobased materials. It’s thus not easy to introduce biobased products to the market, despite the fact that the European Union made their development a priority to make the economy more sustainable and lower in its dependence on fossil fuels.

Not a simple story

The extent to which the perception of different labels has become confusing was shown in the socio-economic research within the Open-Bio programme (realised by Wageningen Economic Research). Consumers were very surprised, for example, that a biobased compostable shopping bag wouldn’t break down in nature. They want a simple, understandable story, and that is not the case with these bags.

“Biobased refers to the raw materials that are used for making a product. Contrary to conventional plastics which are made from petroleum, biobased plastics are produced from renewable raw materials,” explains senior scientist Maarten van der Zee from Wageningen Food & Biobased Research. “And the fact that something is compostable does not mean that it is biodegradable under all conditions. Composting involves creating conditions, such as a specific temperature and humidity, in which materials are quickly broken down due to biological activity. These specific conditions are not available in the ocean, or on the shoulder of a motorway.”

Quality standards examined

The Open-Bio programme generally studied three clusters of problems. The consumer perception and image of biobased products is one of them. The others involve quality standards for the products, and the ‘end-of-life’ options; the way in which the product is processed at the end of its lifecycle. The latter research does not exclusive apply to biobased products but is also relevant for conventional plastics.

“Regarding the quality standards for products, we see that companies often believe that biobased products are of a lower quality than conventional products,” says Wageningen Food & Biobased Research senior scientist Karin Molenveld. “Within the Open-Bio project, we compared product groups in which biobased raw materials have a relatively large market share: insulation materials, packaging films, disposable cups, paints and wood-plastic composites (WPCs, as applied in decking, for example).”

In this framework, paper coffee cups coated with biobased plastic were thoroughly tested for leakage. This showed that while they did leak in extreme conditions, the conventionally coated cups leaked just as much in the same conditions. Molenveld: “For other cases, we found that some standards are not strict enough. For example, our tests showed that some WPC-boards for terracing would bend too far in a warmer climate than ours and could potentially break. Sometimes we’ve encountered quality standards that were dubious in our opinion, and which prevent biobased materials from becoming a genuine alternative.” For instance, an important requirement in the building sector is that insulation materials should last at least 20 years. If this has not yet been proven for a material that this is possible, a correction factor is introduced for the measured isolation value, which prevents the biobased insulation material from competing with traditional insulation products.

Whether this means that the standard should be less strict is up to the committees that set these standards according to Molenveld. “The current standard for insulation materials does not include the specific benefits of novel biobased insulation materials. This, combined with the strict durability requirements, prevents the building sector from becoming more sustainable.”

New insights into composting and breakdown processes

The scientists have encountered different problems with ‘end-of-life’ options. For example, while well-defined standards exist for composting, a lot of compostable waste is currently processed through anaerobic digestion (AD, or biogasification). Van der Zee: “This means that the standards are not entirely in line with the goal for which they were established. We have shown that various compostability standards are not tenable for biogasification. We’ve made recommendations for methods to determine whether a product can be accepted in the organic waste stream which is processed through anaerobic digestion.”

For bio-degradability at sea the problem is the lack of available knowledge. Because the ‘plastic soup’ issue is often in the news, plastics that are bio-degradable in the marine environment are attracting major interest. “We have now determined which factors are relevant in the breakdown process. For example, we know that fouling – a process in which algae attach to the plastic – has a strong effect on the degradation rate,” Van der Zee explains. “We have also seen that conditions at sea are difficult to mimic in the lab. We still have a way to go in this field, but we are gaining a better understanding of how to determine biodegradability reproducibly.”

The research programme shows a wide variety of results. “We have tied up some loose ends,” Van der Zee concludes. “Some biobased products suffer from image issues, some from unfavourable quality standards and others from end-of-life problems. Sometimes it involves a combination of factors. What we learned gives us tools to reduce the distance to the commercial market for biobased products.”

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