The industry is investing more and more in the development of materials based on plants, including good end-of-life options such as reusability and biodegradability. This was underlined during the annual CBPM symposium of Wageningen Food & Biobased Research.
An audience for the most part consisting of representatives from the business community and participants from government and research institutions shared their knowledge about the latest developments in circular & biobased performance materials at Hotel De Wageningse Berg. In his opening speech, chairman of the day Jan Noordegraaf discussed the significant presence of plastics in our contemporary world ("plastics are everywhere") and the societal problems: climate change and plastic soup. For these problems the world demands solutions and contributing legislation.
According to Noordegraaf, tackling the plastic problem is a top priority for the EU. He cites the Single Use Plastics Directive, which recently entered into force, with ambitious measures to tackle the marine litter problem. In addition, the Circular Plastics Alliance, consisting of a European stakeholder from the value chain, will declare next September to use ten million tonnes of recycled plastic for making new products by 2025 at the latest. At the same time, Noordegraaf notes that after seven years of consultation, the "biobased" and "oil-based" parties are not yet aligned on the course to be taken.
End of life increasingly important
"End of life options are becoming increasingly important”, said Christiaan Bolck, CBPM director: “Because of the climate change in the last decade we have seen quite some attention for the resources used for renewable materials: from fossil to bio. Today, the focus is shifting towards developing biobased materials with good recyclable and biodegradable properties.” According to Bolck, this is why the current CBPM research program now focuses on three lines of research. One: the development of materials based on new building blocks, with unique structures and properties. Two: direct use of polymers that are abundant are available in nature, such as cellulose, starch, chitin and lignin. And three: reuse of post-consumer waste that is currently still mostly incinerated.
Various research projects are ongoing, but: "We always have room to start new projects with partners, as long as they fit into the CBPM program," Bolck emphasised.
Biobased sources for new chemicals and materials
An important part of the R&D activities on renewable materials focuses on the development of new biomass extraction and conversion methods. Royal Cosun, for example, has carried out research into eight concepts for simultaneously extracting and separation of cellulose, lignin and pectin from sugar beet pulp. Ad de Laat (Innovation Manager at Royal Cosun) indicated in his presentation that the aim is to leave the natural properties of these three components intact as much as possible. A demo plant for biorefining is now being built that can process between one and five tons of beet pulp per year. Output: animal feed, green gas, micro cellulose fibres and other high-quality components such as arabinose - a sugar that is used in food for diabetics - and galacturonic acid - a building block for surfactants and plastics-.
Interesting building block isiodide
Polymer chemist Rutger Knoop of Wageningen University & Research mapped out the possibilities for the production of new biobased polymers based based on isoidide made from biomass. For this, Knoop cooperated with the American companies ADM and DuPont and the Dutch-based company HCA. ADM is currently producing isoidide on a pilot scale and believes in further upscaling because isoidide it is an interesting building block as a symmetrical, thermally stable and reactive monomer that can be produced from sugar. This makes polymers from isoidide suitable for a wide range of applications; from packaging and construction material to medical equipment and coatings.
Interesting applications for lignin
According to researcher Richard Gosselink from Wageningen University & Research, lignin can become one of the most important pillars of the circular and biobased economy. This natural glue adds firmness and flexibility to trees, grasses and straw and is abundant in nature. As a binder in asphalt, lignin also appears to do well: for example, it is water resistant and can be processed at a lower temperature than bitumen, resulting in enormous reduction of CO2 emission. Durability tests show that the asphalt laid in 2015 is still performing well. "Compared to conventional asphalt, it scores even better on noise reduction, rolling resistance and brake deceleration," says Gosselink. In addition to asphalt, lignin has many more interesting applications for industry, such as in adhesives, composites, cement and building materials.
Post-consumer washes for new materials
Waste-to-product company Renewi proves that also post-consumer waste can be an interesting reusable stream for the industry. Together with diaper producer Essity, Renewi is investigating how pure cellulose can be recovered from used diapers. "A complex task," explains Hanneke Agterhuis, Renewi Program Manager Business Development: "Used diapers consist of a mix of various plastics, elastic material, superabsorbent polymers, plus the user's poo and pee."
Recovering cellulose from diapers appears to be a quest, said Agterhuis. “We are now in our third iteration of the process design, with an improved pre-treatment process and with the focus on maximum removal of superabsorbent material. This refining process will be tested in the third quarter of 2019.”
Recycling packaging waste
Closing the loop of packaging waste is the task of Nedvang, the foundation funded by the industry that put packaging on the Dutch market and that supports municipalities and waste companies in the collection and recycling of packaging. "Packaging is a very sensitive topic, partly thanks to the discussions about plastic soup and the export of waste to Asia" says Joris van der Meulen, project manager at Nedvang. According to him, the Netherlands is a front runner when it comes to recycling. "But we still have a lot of work to do to better recycle plastics."
Nedvang's ambition is to close all packaging chains, together with chain partners. More focus on quality and innovation and creating a more demand-driven value chain for recycled plastic packaging. Not an easy task, according to Van der Meulen, given the constantly higher targets for recycling and new rules that lead to other incentives in market. In addition, he points out: "There is a need for harmonisation since now EU member states can interpret EU regulations in their own way."
Lignocellulose from household waste
Refining of lignocellelulose rich raw materials was the title of the contribution by Edwin Keijsers. Lignocellulose can be extracted from different biomass sources but also recovered from household waste. According to him, the use of these materials is increasing due to the transition to a circular and biobased economy. Keijsers’ main message for those that want to set up a refining process: “Have a close look at the type of fibre because it determines possible applications since upgrading of fibre is hardly possible.
Applying biobased polymers for new products
Steven van Bommel is CEO of BiOBUDDi, producer of environmental-friendly and Biobased toys. The story behind his company starts on a hot summer day in 2011, when his daughter came from school. Why he still made toys from petroleum, she asked. "That was the moment for me when I realised it had to be different". Together with partner Robert de Waal, he started producing eco-friendly toy blocks. “A long and complex process,” Van Bommel summarised: “In the first years, tests did not produce the desired results and we had to pay everything out of our own pocket without anything in return.” In 2017 the company was ready for market introduction. BiOBUDDi currently supplies its products produced in the Netherlands to nearly 30 countries.
Replacing fossil-based PE and PP
Chemical company SABIC works together with the packaging industry on solutions to make the transition from linear to circular economy. Research scientist Jérôme Vachon highlighted SABIC is able to partially replace fossil resources used for the production of PE and PP with certified, renewable sources produced from oil from waste, such as tall oil from wood pulp. This renewable raw material does not conflict with the food chain, while CO2 emissions are lower. An additional advantage is that the production fits in with the existing infrastructure and that no adjustments are needed in the value chain. In addition, SABIC is the first company in the world to produce certified circular polymers in its refineries from mixed plastic waste.
Recycling and conversion of PLA
The final presentation was by Vladislav Jašo, application specialist at Total Corbion PLA. With the increase in PLA production, PLA is becoming increasingly attractive as a separate recycling stream, says Jaso. The question is: under which circumstances is recycling of PLA packaging the best option and when is composting recommended? Recycling is usually recommended when it comes to 3D packaging, clam shells and containers. With flexible 2D packaging, bags, tea bags and coffee cups, composting is more obvious, said Jašo. "After 12 weeks everything is gone". In existing recycling processes, it appears that PLA can already be sorted very well thanks to near-infrared techniques. At the same time, many products made from recycled PLA meet market demand. Examples of products made after mechanical recycling are plant containers and office supplies, such as pens. Jašo: “Thanks to chemical recycling, PLA can even be converted back to its original building block lactic acid and can be reused.”