renewable plastics

Renewable Plastics

Plastics are indispensable in our society. They are functional materials with many applications for which we do not yet have sustainable alternatives. Almost all plastics are made from fossil raw materials. They are not always recyclable and are usually poorly degradable in the environment. In a circular economy, more sustainable solutions are needed. That is why Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is working on the development of plastics from renewable raw materials, which are easy to recycle and do not accumulate in the environment.

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Plastics in a circular economy

Renewable or biobased plastics are not made from finite resources such as petroleum, but from renewable raw materials of biological origin. As such, they play an important role in the circular plastics economy. Biobased plastics, for instance, can be produced from sugars and fatty acids derived from (agricultural) waste streams. These raw materials can often be processed under milder conditions than are commonly used in petrochemistry: at lower temperature or pressure and without the use of aggressive chemicals.

We are working on both drop-in biobased plastics (chemically identical to fossil plastics) and new plastics with specific properties. An advantage of drop-in biobased plastics is that no adjustments are needed in product design and plastic processing. In this case, we focus specifically on the efficient production of biobased monomers (building blocks). An example is PET that is easily recyclable within existing infrastructure and whose environmental impact can be reduced by making it from renewable raw materials ('Bio-PET').

100% Circular materials

Examples of "new" renewable plastics include polylactic acid (PLA), starch plastics and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). These materials are both biobased and compostable/biodegradable. We develop new products based on these materials using specific properties and advantages of these materials. Our aim is for biobased plastics to be fully recyclable back to their original building blocks (monomers) at the end of their useful lifespan. This allows them to be reprocessed into new plastics. If recycling is not possible, or if there is a high risk of products ending up in nature, plastic products must be biodegradable so that no accumulation in the environment will occur.

Committed throughout the value chain

Wageningen Food & Biobased Research has extensive expertise in developing renewable plastics. These usually mainly involve thermoplastics such as polyesters or nylons. They are used in packaging, agricultural plastics and synthetic fibres for textiles, for instance. Here, we adopt a broad, multidisciplinary approach and involvement in the entire value chain: from the selection of raw materials via the production of chemical building blocks to polymerisation and application in products, up to and including end-of-life options. Our expertise in all parts of the plastics' life cycle allows us to target all active audiences in the chain:

  • Producers and suppliers of biomass who want to know whether high-value applications can be found for their raw materials;
  • Chemical companies that want to make building blocks for the plastics industry more sustainable;
  • Plastics producers who want to use new raw materials;
  • Producers who want to apply new materials in applications such als packaging, agricultural products, textiles and medical devices, for example;
  • Brand owners who have circular ambitions;
  • Policy makers who want to promote sustainability in the plastics industry.

Working on solutions

Wageningen Food & Biobased Research is working on various solutions within this research programme: