Biobased products can make an important contribution to the circular economy. But the share of these vegetable-based products in Europe remains small. The three-year Horizon 2020 BIOVOICES project investigates why the transition is going so slowly and how it can be boosted. Wageningen University & Research is one of the thirteen parties in the consortium behind the EU programme.
As researchers at Wageningen Environmental Research, Greet Overbeek and Anne-Charlotte Hoes are involved in BIOVOICES, which is supported by thirteen European partners. According to Overbeek, the share of biobased products is so modest because citizens and governments are hardly involved in the transition as potential users: ‘Although there are many biobased products, they have only recently become available. They often still have teething troubles or the number of users is still small. For example the fraction of biobased insulation materials in Europe is only 4%. Many biobased products still have to prove themselves as an established alternative to fossil products or are not recognized as ‘biobased’.
In 2018 Wageningen Economic Research mapped, as a result of a project, promising sectors and their challenges. For the Netherlands these are the packaging, infrastructure and building materials sectors. In other countries, sustainable fuels and textiles are also mentioned. According to Overbeek, the ‘triple helix’ of governments, research institutions and companies is central to product development. But when implementing products, users are also an important factor. ‘That is why we talk with governments, environmental institutions and consumer representatives as potential users of biobased products. In the next two years we will bring the four groups together in 70 meetings in Europe.’
Increase awareness and solve teething troubles
In the Netherlands, the goal is to have startups, governments, environmental organisations and researchers work together. For example, 8 January 2019 Wageningen Economic Research organised a Social Innovation Event to come up with solutions for two bottlenecks in scaling up biobased products in construction. The first bottleneck is how to increase the familiarity with biobased products. The second is how to help startups and first users financially to resolve teething troubles.
Information meeting 18 April 2019: natural insulation material
On April 18, 2019, there will be a meeting in the context of the NatureFibertastic Event on insulation materials made from, for example, flax, straw, recycled cotton, wood chips or hemp. Overbeek: 'We look at the problems that complicate upscaling, such as quality marks and standards, and the cooperation between providers. In the Netherlands, insulation material currently consists mainly of plastic, which has little moisture and is not breathable. All those natural fibers, on the other hand, breathe and have a higher moisture content. If a quality mark refers to the moisture content of insulation material, such natural fiber is immediately put aside in favor of plastic. The natural fiber boards must also be slightly thicker. The result is that these fibers are now mainly used for new construction and major renovations, for example a detached house that is already turned upside down, and not for small renovations of a terraced house. These are typical problems that arise in the Netherlands where large contractors dominate the housing market. If you look at Belgium, you will see that many more people are building themselves or renovating entire houses. Therefore transition will take place a little faster in Belgium.’
Healthy and sustainable?
The higher price also hinders the use of natural insulation materials, says Overbeek: ‘People do want to pay more, but then it must also be clear that it will yield more. Furthermore, these natural materials are not available everywhere and you have to go to specialist shops. There are health claims and sustainability claims, but have they been proven and are they honored? An example is that natural insulation materials limit the CO2 use of materials. Together we look at how we can get a better grip on these types of bottlenecks. BIOVOICES can report to Brussels which European standards need to be tightened in order to stimulate a CO2-friendly construction.’
In October 2019 a meeting is planned during the Dutch Design Week in which Wageningen Economic Research, together with the Province of Noord-Brabant, is preparing an agenda. Discussions are still ongoing about other meetings. In total, six meetings in the Netherlands will be scheduled.