Published 13 December 2016 by Kathryn Sheridan
The push towards the bioeconomy, one favouring products made from biomass and other renewable, bio-based materials, is being driven both by policymakers and the market. As a sustainability communicator, I am proud to work with companies to help communicate and market bio-based products. Here are some take-home messages I would like to share based on this experience.
If we can’t consume less, we need to consume better
Consumers will always want to buy ‘stuff’. We increasingly measure our quality of life by the status we appear to gain from all this ‘stuff’. So we need to rethink how ‘stuff’ is produced, the energy it uses and how it is disposed of if we are to move to a more sustainable model of consumption and production.
How do biomaterials fit into this picture? If the plastics and chemicals in the products we consume are made from renewable raw materials instead of fossil fuels, it would help reduce our dependence on oil and gas. If the feedstocks are renewable and plant-based, we could reduce our carbon emissions and start to mitigate climate change. And if the packaging and products themselves are biodegradable and sustainable, we could also reduce the amount of waste.
The bio revolution is already happening. Not only are bio-based chemicals and plastics able to replace their petroleum-based equivalents as drop-ins, they are making new materials possible through the creation of a whole new chemistry set.
Back up your sustainability claims with data
Life cycle analysis (LCA) is one way to measure impact in the production, use and end-of-life phases. LCA takes into account everything from raw materials to waste or recycling and goes further than a carbon footprint analysis. Cradle-to-cradle certification goes even further.
I firmly believe that the bioeconomy and particularly bio-based chemicals and plastics are the way forward. But there is no silver bullet. Every decision we take has a knock-on effect and every material choice has an impact.
Work out where the ‘waste’ is coming from
It should be more sustainable to use forestry or agricultural waste for bio-based chemicals than to compete for food crops. However, the industry needs to be realistic about the supply of waste that is available for second generation bio-based chemicals.
Forestry or agricultural waste is not just lying around waiting for industry to cart it away for free. Either it is being used on the farms and forests for silage, mulch or power generation or it is already being sold. These residues already have a value and as demand increases, so will the price. Crops grown specifically for bio-based chemicals are another option but this leads to indirect land use change.