“For a very long time, we were taken for a bunch of retards, until this field of research exploded and now everyone thinks it’s mainstream. But we were alone for a long time to work on it”, says Professor Luc Avérous, coordinator of research on bioplastics at the l’Institut de chimie et procédés pour l’énergie, l’environnement et la santé de Strasbourg.
The researcher’s eyes shine when he talks about the future of bioplastics, over the course of the conversation he grabs fast-food trays and other small objects made from a material that resembles traditional plastic, but all of them come from biomass: wood lignin, tannins, fatty acids from micro-algae
After the Second World War, Strasbourg asserted itself, through the Charles Sadron Institute, as the “Mecca” of world research on polymers.
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From polyethylene to polystyrene, polymers from petroleum, whose industry was booming, quickly became ubiquitous, but 70 years later, manufacturers and consumers are asking for greener materials.
“In 2008, we became aware of our vulnerability to petroleum resources”, explains Rémi Perrin, Research and Development director of the Soprema group, one of the world leaders in waterproofing. The company invests heavily in research on bioplastics, via the Mutaxio laboratory, launched in 2017 with the teams of Pr Avérous.
“There are completely bio-based materials emerging and developing fast,” said Mr. Perrin. But beware, “if the substitution rate is low, it will remain ” green washing instead of an environmental revolution,” he says.
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He underlines that Soprema has already patented 10 technologies thanks to this partnership with the CNRS, for products which should be put on the market within 18 or 36 months.
The production of bioplastics, that is to say biobased plastics, biodegradable or both, today represents only about 1% of the approximately 360 million tonnes of plastics produced each year in the world, according to the European Bioplastics federation.
However, “we are able to biobased all the main consumer polymers”, explains Luc Avérous, whose teams also work with Peugeot-Citroën, Tereos or Veolia.
From biomedical to the automotive industry, there are many applications, researchers are not only looking to reproduce existing materials from biomass, they also want to create new materials, with sometimes unprecedented properties, justifying higher prices than plastics from petroleum.
In 2019, a team succeeded in creating a biobased vitrimer, a material that combines the advantages of the two major families of plastics, recyclable thermoplastics and solid thermosets that are more resistant but cannot become liquid again.
Researchers are also working on bandages derived from shrimp shells made from chitin, a substance which once transformed, becomes supple and bactericidal.
“For the moment, we’re not starving the planet by making biobased plastics. All major industrial projects are mainly interested in industrial by-waste that are not valued,” said Professor Avérous.
However, we should not throw the baby with the bathwater while trying to make all the petroleum-based plastics disappear.
“Tomorrow’s plastics will be biobased and will also come from recycling of existing plastic: we will have to find polymers that we no longer throw away, that we can reuse while keeping the same properties”, insists the director of the Charles Sadron Institute, Christian Gauthier.
Published on geo.fr
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