EU People and Leaders

Neste Sprinting to the Future with Bioplastics

Exclusive Interview on the Future and Challenges of Bioplastics with Lars Börger, Head of Product Marketing - Emerging Businesses at Neste

Why did Neste decide to move into Bioplastics?

Neste is in the business of fighting climate change and has already achieved a leading position as a producer of renewable diesel made primarily from waste and residue raw materials. We also produce renewable jet fuel and renewable solvents, among others. We are determined now to use our expertise in renewable raw materials and refining to help the plastics sector and plastics consuming brands grow sustainably. We can help them reduce their crude oil dependency and climate emissions with durable, reusable, and recyclable bio-based plastics.

How does Neste define bioplastics?

The term bioplastics generally refers to plastics partially or completely made from bio-based, renewable resources. Our focus at Neste is on fully bio-based plastics, such as bio-PP and bio-PE, as well as on building blocks to produce those. Purely biodegradable plastics from non-renewable sources are not in our focus.

What is your position on bioplastics’ end-of-life challenges?

End-of-life challenges are essentially the same for conventional plastics and bio-based plastics. Besides avoiding unnecessary plastic production, effective recycling remains the key measure to combat the plastic waste challenge globally. Instead of being an “end-of-life” option, it provides the means to extend the products’ or materials’ life so that materials can be reused instead of hauled to landfills or incinerators. Landfilling is actually phased out in the EU; it is ecologically unacceptable and does not support circular economy in any way.

As we all know, some conventional plastics and some bioplastics are biodegradable. We believe that depending on the application, biodegradability can be considered an acceptable end-of-life solution only if the material decomposes and metabolizes completely and does not add to the microplastics problem. Neste focuses currently on bio-based plastics applications that can be re-used and eventually recycled.

Incineration of plastics for energy should be the very last resort for non-biodegradable plastics that can no longer be recycled and reused. However, bio-based plastics have an advantage over conventional plastics when it comes to incineration: their carbon emissions to the atmosphere during incineration are significantly lower. They release only the carbon that the plants absorbed during their growth and cultivation while incineration of conventional fossil plastics releases additional carbon from the fossil sources into the atmosphere and thereby accelerating the climate change.

In addition to working with bioplastics, Neste is exploring chemical recycling and the use of liquefied waste plastic in the production of fuels and new plastics. Our aim is to create a new outlet for plastic waste that cannot be recycled. The aim of our recently announced development project is to proceed to industrial scale trials during 2019, and to process more than one million ton of plastic waste annually by 2030. Neste’s main objective is to increase circularity of raw materials by efficiently using bio-based renewable resources and chemically recycled raw materials.

Are bioplastics better than plastics?

Bioplastics is a much younger industry than conventional crude oil plastics. Bio-based plastics often shows performance advantages and a better environmental footprint when compared to conventional plastics. They have a smaller carbon footprint, help save resources and reduce crude oil dependency. Bioplastics can help the plastics industry and plastics consuming brands grow more sustainably. Neste’s drop-ins bioplastics have an “economy of scale” advantage through their compatibility with existing production infrastructures and a sustainable advantage by reducing the ecological impact of the raw material used in the production. Drop-in bioplastics allow stakeholders, especially plastic consuming brands, to act today without the need to wait for future technology developments or asset investments.

Bioplastics and the bioeconomy overall have the potential to unite the agricultural, chemical and industrial sectors. Bioplastics and bio-economy also help create new jobs in Europe and elsewhere both within the industry as well as in the entire value chain.

What do you think of the European Commission’s proposal to reduce impact of certain plastic products on the environment?

The proposal focusing essentially on reducing plastic waste and related challenges is very ambitious. It is, however, truly the only way forward with which Europe could set an example for the rest of the world. Today’s generation and its improving living standard should not threaten future generation’s ability to lead a good life in healthy environments. It is urgent that we use all currently available methods and develop new ones to avoid and overcome the unintended negative consequences of plastic usage before they become irreversible. The forecasted increase in plastic consumption and the improvements in overall well-being in societies can go hand-in-hand. Neste’s bioplastics and its efforts related to chemical recycling of plastic waste provide solutions to make this possible.

Do you have any recommendations for the European Commission?

We are surely not in the position to offer recommendations to the EU commission in terms of plastics issues but we would like to share a few thoughts: First, while the overall target at EU level must be to reduce the problems related to plastics consumption and knowing that accelerating re-use and mechanical recycling shall remain the first options to solve plastics waste challenges, the EU should develop a holistic approach to create a sustainable plastics landscape.

The Dutch Transition agenda is an example of such a holistics landscape, rooted in a notion that a set of solutions, instead of any single solution, will be necessary to solve the problem. Chemical recycling should be considered at the same level as avoidance, re-use and mechanical recycling when it comes to recognising effective methods to complete and close the plastics circle.

Sustainable bio-based plastics play an essential role in this landscape as they provide the possibility to reduce the society’s dependence on fossil resources as well as the emissions into the atmosphere.

Secondly, we and the rest of the bioplastics industry would encourage the EU to efficiently develop its regulatory framework for plastics to ensure sufficient stability and predictability for the industry and to ensure a level playing field for all players. Such a framework will support the bioplastics industry to provide maximal contribution to circular economy, EU’s societal targets (e.g creating new jobs, reduction of dependency from non-European fossil raw material sources), and reaching of global climate emissions targets.

The European Commission is facing a unique opportunity to ensure that EU member states take their responsibilities regarding all plastics. The inclusion, recognition, and promotion of bio-based polymers in the EU directive is an indispensable and inevitable step in this process. We are convinced that the EU can be the globally leading region in developing innovative legislative measures for creating circular plastic streams, as well as, in creating the framework for companies to further continue to generate the most innovative renewable plastics solutions.

What are the most important challenges when looking at the evolution from fossil-based plastic to bioplastics?

Climate change is mankind’s greatest challenge. Bio-based plastics are already available and provide a drop-in solution to reducing crude oil dependency and carbon footprint of plastics products. Bio-based plastics are the only viable low-carbon alternative to fossil-based plastics, when all possibilities to re-use and recycle have been exhausted. There are two significant challenges still limiting widespread adoption of bio-based plastics:

  • absence of legislative support for bio-based plastics; leaving the burden of the perceived higher cost of renewable raw materials versus crude oil solely to the value chain.
  • the threat of losing the big picture of climate change as a global threat when focusing only on details of life cycle analyses for plastics, such as end-of-life issues, no matter how important these obviously are.

Our plastics consumption needs to change and we need to solve the global plastics waste challenge, but we need to make sure also that the plastics industry and the vast number of plastics-consuming industries can serve the society and grow sustainably. Bioplastics can help them do that.

Lars Börger Neste
Lars Börger from Neste