Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research investigates standards for biobased products as part of the Open-Bio project commissioned by the EU. There is some ambiguity concerning bio-based products which frequently have different functional properties and end-of-life options from petroleum-based products. To develop and improve these standards, however, misconceptions will first have to be identified and eliminated. Clear standards will help to remove barriers to the introduction of bio-based products on the market.
Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is deploying its knowledge and experience of bio-based products and its laboratory expertise to research quality requirements for functional properties such as resilience, flexibility, permeability, recyclability and degradability.
Lack of clearly defined standards
All sorts of bio-based products are being developed at present: not only bio-based paint, adhesives and solvents, but also bioplastics and bio-packaging, bio-based fertilisers and additives. Clearly defined standards are lacking for most of these new, bio-based product groups. Karin Molenveld, researcher at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, explains, ‘Some standards – the standards for insulation material, for example – are out of date. The standard method for testing insulation values dates from the time when all the insulation materials on the market were manufactured from minerals or fossil-based resources, such as rock wool. Many bio-based alternatives have functional properties that are just as good. But they do not emerge well from the standard functionality tests because their additional, beneficial properties – breathability and vapour permeability, for example – are not included in the current standards. Many companies are put off because of the limitations of the test results.’
Clarity about end-of-life options
There are also misconceptions about the ‘end-of-life’ options for bio-based products, such as compostability, biodegradability, and recyclability. Maarten van der Zee, a researcher at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research, says, ‘When a product is described as “compostable” people tend to assume that it is also biodegradable in, say, a marine environment. But that is not always the case: The degradation process in the sea is totally different from the degradation process during composting or in soil.’
Van der Zee takes the view that these and other misconceptions are creating barriers for bio-based products. On the one hand, invalid assumptions are drawn from words such as ‘compostable’ and ‘biodegradable;’ on the other, businesses such as recycling industries that have to deal with end-of-life options are refusing to accept bio-based products. Van der Zee continues, ‘Because the recycling plants do not know exactly where they stand, they are afraid that bio-based products will undermine the quality of the recycling stream.’ To eliminate these and other misconceptions Wageningen UR will explore in the Open-Bio project exactly what happens to bio-based or compostable packaging when it ends up in a sorting system. The research team will also work on improving the testing methods for determination of biodegradability in different (intended and unintended) end-of-life options such as anaerobic digestion, (home) composting and biodegradation in soil and the sea.
Communication on the properties and applications of bio-based products is another crucial spearhead. LEI Wageningen UR is also researching consumer communication and social acceptance within the Open-Bio project; other research partners are concentrating on communication with the business community and government bodies. The aim is to develop guidelines for labelling bio-based products and for the information accompanying bio-based products. In other words, the standards must be translated to suit the needs of specific target groups. The outcome of this research will deliver standards and policy lines at European level.
Various knowledge and research institutes are collaborating on the project, including ECN, FBR and LEI in the Netherlands, CNRS (France), the Nova-Institut (Germany) and the universities of Athens, Berlin and York. A large number of businesses are also involved, inside and outside Europe. Open-Bio hopes that, with this wide range of partners, it will be able to achieve worldwide harmonisation of testing methods. It is with this aim in mind that various workshops in the next few years will be organised.
With the development of clear standards, Wageningen UR contributes to improved recognisability of bio-based products. This creates clarity for businesses, public sector organisations and consumers and helps removes barriers, thus opening the market for bio-based products.
In the Open-Bio project Wageningen UR is researching:
- Obstacles with regard to product functionality
- Methods to determine:
- Bio-based content
- Biodegradability in (home) composting conditions
- Biodegradability in anaerobic digestion
- Biodegradability in soil
- Biodegradability in the marine environment
- Recycling techniques
- Communication and labelling of bio-based products
- Acceptance factors for consumers, the public sector and businesses