Exclusive Interview with Michael Carus (Nova-Institute)

When, where and how did you hear the word ‘bioplastic’ for the first time?
I heard the word ‘bioplastic’ twenty years ago for the first time. The word was used in the context of project funding and tenders. The main concern at that time was to find new applications for the biomass overproduction. The word was used in terms of biodegradability.

What is bioplastic (biosourced or biodegradable)?
The word bioplastic should not be used anymore. We should start using the official names as defined by CEN’s European Norm. Bio-based’ means derived from biomass and biodegradable refers to the end-of-life degradability. The word ‘bioplastics’ is also confusing in the organic food sector as the word ‘bio’ refers to ‘organic agriculture’. In the medical sector, the word ‘bioplastic’ refers to biocompatibility. Bioplastic is a marketing invention and it creates confusion. Regarding the functional preferences, it will depend of the context. In a context of climate protection (CO2 emission reduction) and independence from the fossil fuel economy, bio-based is more appropriate. In a context of ‘microparticles reduction’, biodegradability seems more relevant.

What is the most important breakthrough?
The biggest breakthrough hasn’t come yet. The microparticles problem could potentially partly be solved by the biodegradable sector. If CO2 reduction was taken seriously, bio-based would know a breakthrough.

What is the most important future challenge?
Price is the major problem. Making bio-based plastics more price competitive in comparison to traditional plastics will be the most important challenge. The biggest part of current demand is image-based (CSR). The day we produce it at the same price or cheaper than fossil-fuel plastics, we’ll have a breakthrough.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the industry?
Bio-based plastics are often produced by SMEs, the traditional plastics industry is dominated by old chemical multinational companies. SMEs are more flexible and innovative, but have limited market access. There is still room for newcomers. The fossil-fuel plastics industry is dominated by a few old chemical multinational companies who are less flexible but have market access.

What is the most important missed opportunity?
The climate protection policy was only focussed on bioenergy and biofuels, materials were left outside. The Energy sector has a bigger lobby than the materials sector. The bio-based chemical sector does not receive any incentives in contrast to the bioenergy and biofuels sector, which is highly subsidized.

What will be the biggest change in 2025 in comparison to 2015?
The next five years will be determinant for the sector. Policy after 2020 is not yet decided, but crucial to the sector. Incentives on bioenergy and biofuels will be reduced in the next ten years and lower pressure on biomass. The price of oil will be determinant. If the oil prices remain low, no changes will take place.

Who are the most influential persons and companies?

  • Coca-cola for their plant bottle.
  • Novamont for its very large range of applications.
  • Dupont for the bio-based polymers.
  • Breskam for sugar cane.
  • Catia Bastioly, CEO of Novamont.
  • Mr. Paterman – 11 years Director of DG RTD on Sustainability and later Biotechnology (until 2007), some call him father of European Bioeconomy.

Is the FP7 funded BioTic project enough for the Juncker Commission to take action on the crucial issues for the industrailization of biorefineries in Europe: secure access to ​affordable biomass and access to funding for the first commercial plant of a single technology?

BioTic is indeed a very important umbrella project, covering all kinds of barriers in the bio-based economy. But of course one project can never be enough – there are many parallel projects, there are more than 100 projects. The environment for investment is not business friendly. There are no commitments, only roadmaps. The EU situation is not enthusiastic. NGOs have a very strong position in Europe. US are very pragmatic and have a strong commitment coming from farmers’ industry and lobby.

MICHAEL CARUS is the CEO of the NOVA-Institut based in Germany. Nova Institut

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