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Building a German bioeconomy for plastics: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft researcher proposes an industry roadmap

#Building a German bioeconomy for plastics: Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft researcher proposes an industry roadmap

Dr. Anna-Katharina Stumpf.
Dr. Anna-Katharina Stumpf, head of central office for Fraunhofer Strategic Research Field Bioeconomy.

16 Nov 2023 — Research organization Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft has released a roadmap for building a leading bioplastics market in Germany. The institute’s research finds that critically missing R&D areas and inadequate legislation keep bioplastics economically “unviable.” 

Bio-based plastics are still a niche area, comprising less than 2% of the plastics market, according to Dr. Anna-Katharina Stumpf, head of central office for Fraunhofer Strategic Research Field Bioeconomy. 

“Despite their [bioplastics] growth potential — their market share is projected to reach 5% globally by 2030 — there are several hurdles to overcome,” she tells Packaging Insights

The first is that bio-based plastics are a relatively young class of materials compared to fossil-based counterparts. Specialized (bio-based) additives, compounds and processing technologies are still in the early stages of development. 

“Although the gap is narrowing, their property profile is often not yet equivalent to conventional plastics. For example, the expansion of melt viscosity or elongation at break needs to be addressed through further development of the biopolymers and new bio-based additives and formulations,” explains Dr. Stumpf. 

“It is key to continuously improve the technologies for modifying and extending the market grades and to develop, evaluate, prove and validate closed-loop solutions, including recycling processes for other (bio-based) plastics.” 

Woman in lab.Critical R&D on issues such as melt viscosity needs to be conducted, says Stumpf.
Germany as a case study 

Dr. Stumpf says that Germany faces two key issues that hinder the expansion of the bio-based materials market, similar to those in other countries. 

“Currently, sugar cane and corn are the primary raw materials for bioplastics. The market fears the risk of a public ‘food or fuel’ debate, resulting from their use.” 

“To counter this concern, the focus should shift to using (regional) plant residues, such as non-rotting fermentation residues from biogas plants or residues from agricultural production. In addition, the use of regional residues offers the long-term advantage of shorter transportation distances, potentially leading to lower prices and greater sustainability of the plastic products produced,” she explains. 

However, at Interpack 2023, Derek Atkinson, vice president of sales and business development at Total Corbion PLA, said the “food or fuel” debate makes no sense and that there is enough feedstock to produce bioplastics en masse without disrupting food supplies. 

“There is an implication that there is a shortage of feedstocks or that if we use food substances, we are taking them out of the mouth of a starving child. The reality is there is more than enough food in the world to feed everyone, but there is a food waste issue,” he said. 

Food vs. fuel? 
As the food waste issue persists, the currently limited availability of biomass makes identifying alternative raw material sources and tapping into waste and residual material streams essential, according to Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft.

“One approach is to link residual material streams from the food industry to the production of bioplastics. The added value of inedible food components (by-products), which cannot be avoided, plays a special role in this context. Throughout the entire value chain, one-third of the food produced worldwide ends up as by-products or waste like peels, stalks or carcasses,” explains Stumpf. 

“The cascading use of these by-products for material or energy recovery offers enormous potential for increasing value creation and resource efficiency. For example, the fiber-rich matrix of plants can be used to produce natural fiber-plastic composites.” 

Increased consumer education on food waste prevention measures to extend shelf life, such as antimicrobial coatings on the packaging water vapor or oxygen barriers, are examples of where the industry can level the feedstock playing field. With adequate innovation and policy reforms, bioplastics could become competitive with fossil-based rivals.

“In a circular bioeconomy, where raw materials and products are kept in the cycle as long as possible, the use of cascades as described above helps to reduce competition between the various sectors and to exploit synergies.” 

Cost competition, price parity
The Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft report states that the global number of producers of bioplastics is currently relatively low. 

“For plastics processors, this results in issues with security of supply, higher costs, and too few diverse types of bioplastics to meet the wide range of potential applications,” says Stumpf. 

“To promote the wider use of bio-based plastics, innovation is crucial throughout the entire value chain from raw materials to processing and recycling.”

R&D efforts are needed to tackle challenges related to the cost and availability of bio-based raw materials, such as wood and natural fibers, she says. 

“In the recycling area, the sustainability potential of bio-based plastics is not fully exploited due to limited market volumes. To fully leverage existing technical solutions and innovative recycling approaches, it is necessary to adapt policy guidelines and facilitate market access.” 

This would lead to economically competitive closed-loop systems and fully exploit the environmental advantage of bio-based plastics, Stumpf asserts. 

Additionally, raising awareness about the possibilities of closed-loop recycling for bio-based and potentially degradable plastics is essential to foster wider acceptance and demand.

“The (food) packaging sector, in particular, is extremely price-sensitive. Even small differences in cost can determine whether plastic is used or not. If bio-based plastics do not appear economically viable to the industry, they will not be prioritized or adopted.”

One critical measure to ensure policy development and industry attention would be a carbon tax on fossil raw materials or other climate protection levies, concludes Stumpf. 

By Louis Gore-Langton

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