As the EU phases out a wide range of single-use plastics this year, investor interest is steadily increasing for adopting easily recyclable or bio-based plastics. In recent weeks, European biotechs Carbios and Avantium have taken big steps towards meeting rising demand.
With millions of tons of plastic waste littering the ocean floors, truly solving our massive plastics pollution problem appears to be a long way off. However, the appetite for a more sustainable plastics economy is growing. By 2028, we could see a doubling of the market for bioplastics — plastics designed to be biodegradable, derived from renewable biological sources, or both.
In the last few weeks, Carbios in France and Avantium in the Netherlands have been actively staking their claim in Europe’s nascent ‘circular’ plastics economy, where plastics come from recycled plastic waste or crops rather than fossil fuel sources.
Carbios is developing an enzyme to break down and recycle PET plastics more times than current recycling methods allow. The company completed a €114M capital increase earlier this month. The majority of the proceeds will bankroll the setup of a recycled PET manufacturing unit, which is planned to generate revenues by 2025.
Additionally, Michelin recently validated Carbios’ technology for the production of tires, which was framed as a way for the global manufacturer to meet its target of producing 100% sustainable tires by 2050.
Meanwhile, Avantium is developing a plant-based material called PEF that breaks down more rapidly than several traditional plastics it hopes to replace. One of the applications will be sustainable plastic bottles, where Avantium is pursuing partnerships with Carlsberg and Coca Cola.
Though Avantium’s plans for a long-awaited bioplastics production plant were delayed by the effects of the pandemic in 2020, last month saw the company striving to get the project off the ground with €28M raised in a share offering and a supply agreement with the packaging firm Resilux.
“Investors have been interested for quite a few years already [in bioplastics and plastics recycling biotechs], however we have seen an uptick in the last year or so, with the increased realization that fossil plastic growth cannot continue, and recycling requirements strongly pursued in the EU,” said Peter Nieuwenhuizen, a founding partner of the European Circular Bioeconomy Fund (ECBF), an investment entity that was established last year by the European Investment Bank.
An EU-wide ban on some of the worst environmental offenders, common single-use plastics such as cutlery and straws, is to enter into effect in July. EU regulations also demand that at least 50% of all plastics be recycled by 2025. However, in part due to the Covid-19 pandemic, which has seen an increased use of single-use products such as sanitary wipes and medical masks, the block is in danger of missing those targets.
It also may be too late to reverse most of the damage we have already done. Martin Stephan, the Deputy CEO of Carbios, told me that while some have speculated that we could clean up the oceans with an enzyme similar to that developed by Carbios, it’s too late for about 90% of the plastic that is already on the bottom of the ocean. He emphasized that plastics still have many important applications; the problem is plastics waste, not plastics per se.
“What is important is to turn the tap off [on plastic waste being generated] and to make sure that no plastic ends up in the ocean,” Stephan said. Carbios seeks to achieve this goal by making plastic waste a valuable commodity. “Waste is the new oil.”
The manufacture of bioplastics from biological sources, such as plants, can prove more eco-friendly than traditional plastics made from fossil fuels. Other bioplastics, such as Avantium’s PEF plastic, claim additional advantages, for example that they biodegrade naturally in a few years whereas PET takes decades to degrade.
“Like every new technology, bioplastics are initially more expensive to produce than incumbent plastics, simply because their production volumes are much smaller than fossil plastics,” said Tom van Aken, Avantium’s CEO. “To overcome this challenge, we are leveraging the unique performance characteristics of PEF and focus on high-value applications for its market introduction, such as barrier films and specialty bottles.”
“In the longer term, we are convinced that PEF will be a polymer that is going to be cost and performance competitive to conventional packaging materials like glass, aluminium, and plastics like PET.”
Critics charge there may be more hype than substance to those claims. Some have raised an alarm that the use of agricultural land for the development of bioplastics could lead to deforestation. Others point out that even recycled or plant-based plastics can leak toxins into the environment.
“A car tire, by definition, cannot be 100% sustainable,” said Steve Hynd, Policy Manager of the City to Sea NGO that is dedicated to eliminating plastics pollution. “Even with these positive developments that reduce the demand for the inclusion of virgin plastics, the product will still, by design, shed microplastics directly into the natural environment.”
Industry insiders acknowledge that the effort against plastics pollution is still at an early stage. Bioplastics, for example, will need to compete against the pulp and paper industry for packaging, which are already plant-based, biodegradable and recyclable, according to Nieuwenhuizen.
“Increasingly, being bio-based is not enough,” he added. “Bioplastics also need to be recyclable and biodegradable. This is the holy grail: plastic products that are bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable.”
Aside from Carbios and Avantium, there are many European projects in action that aim to tackle this holy grail for bioplastics. However, even if the holy grail is achieved, hefty economic and regulatory barriers mean it will likely take time to establish a circular economy, not just for plastics, but for a wide range of other products such as food additives and textiles.
Cover image from Elena Resko.