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Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
How Can Brands Bring Bio-Based Materials to Scale (and Should They)?

A large audience gathered at this SB ’15 London breakout session Tuesday to (hopefully!) learn more about what appeared to be a very niche subject.

A preliminary display of hands around the room confirmed the lack of experience around bio-materials, but also confirmed the enthusiasm to learn. Moderator Kathryn Sheridan provided expertise throughout and eased the audience through a range of background technical detail that many may have found daunting. However, the emphasis was kept firmly on the tie-up with brands and opportunities for the future, rather than an hour-long chemistry lesson.

The session started with panel introductions:

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- Marcel Lubben introduced Reverdia as a renewable solutions provider for brands, using a unique low-pH yeast Biosuccinium™ technology in a unique value chain collaboration model. Reverdia’s markets are primarily in packaging, adhesives, foams and coatings.

  • Duncan Cross’ introduction to his company Renmatix was more technical in nature, and expanded on how it provided a bridge to renewable chemical and fuels between Biomass and downstream end users.
  • Thomas Klausli explained the technology behind AVA Biochem’s Hydrothermal processing — basically a ‘steam cooker,’ as he put it, producing material which is the starting point for many future bio-based products.
  • And Tom Szaky is CEO of TerraCycle, a company that makes consumer products from pre-consumer and post-consumer waste and by reusing other waste materials.

So, we have an audience, we have an expert panel — what direction did the session take? The panel agreed on a need for help and assistance from brand owners; the industry appears to be making great advances in bio-materials, but this isn’t matched by a similar growing demand amongst brand owners to employ these latest technologies on a significant scale. Of course, this is driven somewhat by consumer demand for these types of products, but it was considered that the responsibility to investigate, introduce and implement bio-based materials into the supply chain lies primarily with the brand owners and manufacturers.

The panel suggested that consumers are not immediately concerned with the more technical aspects of the technology, such as LCA; rather, they recognize and respond increasingly to familiar buzzwords such as ‘bio-based,’ ‘bio-material,’ ‘renewable, recycled or recyclable’ plastics, and ‘biotechnology.’ To gain consumer adoption, it was felt that highly technical background information and chemical terms should be avoided, to concentrate on product attributes with greater meaning for the consumer. It’s up to brand owners to take responsibility for adopting these new materials — consumers just need recyclable or compostable products. There’s probably greater understanding now around CO2 emissions, but little appreciation that this can now be harvested towards more sustainable plastics production.

Audience comment showed that the technology and direction of travel for bio-based materials are promising, but several contributors had doubts about the singular message the bio-materials industry is trying to convey. To implore brand owners to help the industry is arguably no message at all, and would probably be ignored to a large extent unless this is supported by tangible evidence of the benefits throughout the supply chain. This is especially relevant as renewable energy is becoming cheaper and more cost-effective, yet the cost of producing bio-based materials still doesn’t currently achieve parity with petrochemical-based competitors. Szaky felt that the continuing and artificially low global oil price (not to mention the lack of recyclability) was a major factor against the long-term potential of bio-based materials, and that a higher oil price would naturally create demand for recycling.

Coming from the brand and product design industry, I was part of an audience that, generally speaking, was already converted to the attraction of bio-based materials and the benefits that could result. What I missed from this session was the precise strategy that the bio industry is adopting to increase penetration, the absence of any industry trade body with teeth to gain wider adoption, and a lack of initiatives to educate brand owners and manufacturers on the benefits and opportunities available.

This area needs greater engagement with the whole supply chain — until we reach that point, I suspect that we’ll make slow progress towards substantial reductions in the use of petrochemical-based materials by relying on consumer protest alone.


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