Biobased materials: cultivating a sustainable future

Reducing our consumption, implementing collaborative systems that encourage people to consume differently and making use of biobased materials are becoming ever more crucial, says Ramon Arratia – sustainability director at Interface.

Ramon Arratia, sustainability director, Interface.
Ramon Arratia, sustainability director, Interface.

Whether using petroleum to make a plastic bottle, run a machine or build a car, the manufacturing industry consumes countless litres of oil every day.

The supply of virgin materials from the earth is finite and at our current rate of consumption will not be able to sustain existing levels of manufacturing and living.

With a growing global population, even if we were to recycle 100% of the materials used, we could not meet our mounting needs.

Consider copper. If we were able to collect all of the copper consumed back for recycling, and extract all resources currently available to us from the ground, it would still not be enough to cover our increasing appetite driven by demand.

Closed loop recycling is part of the solution. But reducing our consumption, and implementing collaborative systems that encourage people to consume differently are also the key to fostering a more sustainable future.

Airbnb and Blablacar, for example, perfectly demonstrate the use and re-use of existing assets by reducing the amount of virgin raw materials needed in the industries and building the platform for consumers to also think about multiple use of property.

Closing the Loop - European Progress to Eliminate Dependency on OilBut, we still need to do much more to combat the dependency on oil-based products, not only to stave off an unprecedented energy crisis (which would require almost a trillion euros injected into the EU economy), but to deliver a brighter, more sustainable future for all industries.

Biobased materials

Derived from renewable agricultural and forestry feedstocks, including wood, grasses and crops, as well as wastes and residues, biobased materials can be used to replace fabrics, adhesives, reinforcement fibres and polymers.

If manufacturing new bio-materials on an industrial scale, not only must they withstand the rigours of everyday life and be as durable as petroleum-based counterparts, it’s imperative they are scrutinised at every stage of their life cycle against sustainable measures.

So, this poses a challenge. Unless advancements in increasing the life cycle of oil-based materials are made and a significant decrease in the current consumption of these products is achieved, a shift to bio-materials won’t return nearly enough benefits.

Closing the Loop - European Progress to Eliminate Dependency on Oil - Biobased Raw MaterialIn fact, in certain situations, and if irresponsibly sourced, it could worsen the planet’s situation by placing pressure on land, water, food for livestock and organic phosphates.

Automotive production

The automotive sector has been experimenting with biobased plastic since the 1940s, and its use in the design and production of vehicles, ranging from agricultural to personal, is still growing. The different composites have a variety of uses, from light-weighting, improving fuel efficiency and increasing the overall sustainable value of vehicles.

Despite some huge advances, the potential for new biobased products and applications is far from exhausted.

Current European Commission estimates conclude a greater shift to biobased raw materials and biological processing methods could yield CO2 savings of up to 2.5 billion tonnes a year by 2030, providing a natural solution, enabling us to plan for a fossil fuel-free future. However, creating biobased materials isn’t without challenges.

The automotive sector is one of the few industries where biobased materials have begun to change the way products are manufactured. There have been some great steps across the board, but all organisations still need to take significant leaps forward in pursuit of new technologies to be able to break free from the constraints of non-renewable materials.

Many biobased materials originate from products typically considered waste:

  • Soy and coconut oil can be used to manufacture additives
  • wool has been spun into yarn to supplement synthetic nylon
  • plant resins and fibres are able to be made into glass
  • sugar cane and wood-cutting waste can be used to create biomass energy sources
  • the resin extracted from fallen pine cones can be used to make rubber and can be collected without disturbing the surrounding environment

These are only a fraction of the working examples that exist today, but it requires radical thinking and innovation from leaders within businesses to fundamentally change the way a product is manufactured and to find new uses for waste materials. The key is taking a holistic approach.

Futureproofing requires investment

The investment and resource required to begin using biobased products is sizeable: €3.7bn will be injected into the European economy between 2014 and 2024 from the European Commission and the Bio-based Industries Consortium (BIC) to develop an emerging, thriving bio-economy sector.

Closing the Loop - European Progress to Eliminate Dependency on Oil - Recycled Raw MaterialThere’s a lot of unchartered territory when it comes to biobased, which brings new challenges for research and development, and investment doesn’t stop at research. It’s required to bolster infrastructures and manufacturing facilities.

Ensuring biobased products are viable can necessitate the development of new machinery to process and create the materials required, as well as assemble the final product.

Recycling or reusing materials suitable for biobased products can be notoriously difficult as many ‘waste’ products are hard to process. Organisations need to commit to the full system to make biobased a reality.

A case in point, Biome Bioplastics has announced a £3m investment into its biobased development programme, aiming to produce bio-fuels from lignin –a widely abundant waste product in the paper industry.

Despite being difficult to process, Biome Bioplastics is still taking the risk in finding a new use for a material that is otherwise discarded.

Other natural materials, such as seaweed, can also be used to make bio-fuels. With careful execution, the potential benefits and need to move away from oil-based products can outweigh the challenges that need to be managed.

The versatility and potential for biobased materials could one day see the reliance on finite, virgin petro-chemical raw materials completely removed across the entire manufacturing industry.