£50k initiative to assess barriers to bio-based materials

A new science and regulatory network, backed by £50k of Innovate UK funding, has been launched to speed up the switch to a bioeconomy.

Bioplastic spoon fork and disposable lunch boxThe UK-wide network, named the Bio-based and Biodegradable Regulatory Network (BB-REG-NET), will investigate the major barriers preventing the commercialisation of bio-based and biodegradable chemicals and plastics. Particular attention will be paid to regulation, standards, communication and policy.

It is hoped that this will speed up the development and adoption of bio-materials, thereby reducing the UK’s reliance on fossil resources.

According to the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA), approximately 88 per cent of chemicals and plastics are currently made from virgin-fossil resources, and manufacturing these materials accounts for approximately six per cent of global CO2-equivalent emissions. Contrastingly, international aviation is responsible for around one per cent. Yet, despite the climate crisis and the UK’s net zero targets, petrochemical production is increasing.

How will the network operate?

The new network comprises key stakeholders in the UK’s bio-based and biodegradable materials sector, including industrialists, academics, policy makers, government officials, retailers, consumers and funding bodies.

Its initial ‘discovery phase’ is being led by the BBIA, University of Sheffield academics and sustainable chemicals consultancy Green Rose Chemistry.

According to the BBIA, we need to significantly increase the proportion of chemicals and plastics manufactured from biomass, ideally to at least 20 per cent.

Commenting on the benefits of a bioeconomy, Dr Jen Vanderhoven, COO of BBIA, said: “Not only does the bioeconomy have significant environmental benefits by reducing our reliance on fossil resources, but the economic potential is also vast, with the sector having contributed £220 billion of output across the UK economy and supporting 5.2 million jobs in 2014.

“This project will look at how we can unlock the economic and environmental impact of the bioeconomy even further, spear-heading the acceleration of the development and adoption of bio-based materials and products.”

Barriers to the bioeconomy

BBIA has identified specific hurdles which are slowing the adoption of bio-materials and will be investigated by BB-REG-NET.

These include regulations that favour fossil-based products, which the BBIA has identified as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), the Plastics Packaging Tax, Extended Producer Responsibility Schemes (EPRs), Simpler Recycling guidelines and waste management and classification.

Additionally, the network aims to shed light on the disconnect between policies across the UK government. BBIA asserts that research funding priorities into bio-based and biodegradable materials do not align with the Biomass Strategy, DEFRA's Simpler Recycling guidance, or the EPR scheme.

Standards for environmental impact analysis of bio-based and biodegradable materials will also be examined by chemical engineers. BBIA claims that a lack of data, as well as inconsistencies in the methods used to assess material life cycles, can result in misleading claims and certifications.

Professor Rachael Rothman, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “It is really important to assess the environmental footprint of [bio-based] materials across the whole life cycle to ensure that their use does indeed reduce carbon emissions and that there aren’t unintended consequences.

“There is currently a lack of data on biodegradation, meaning this is often poorly modelled in life cycle assessment (LCA) - for example, [regarding] how much carbon is sequestered in the soil and how the biodegradable plastic impacts the soil microbiome. There is also a lack of data on production of bio-based materials and this means that an LCA conducted by one person can give a very different answer to that done by another person, even for the same material.”

Relatedly, linguists from the University of Sheffield will assess the language surrounding bio-based and biodegradable packaging, comparing terminology used by manufacturers, retailers and policy to that used by the general public. According to BBIA, terms such as ‘biodegradable’ are often misused and can lead to greenwashing and customer confusion, so clear, standardised vocabulary is needed.

Professor Joanna Gavins, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Sheffield, explained: “Language is a key part of this problem and our project will enable us to understand how we can improve communication about innovation in materials, both from business to business and from businesses to the general public.”

Dr Anna Zhenova, CEO of Green Rose Chemistry, added: “The project team brings together a highly effective blend of expertise in bio-based chemicals, biodegradable materials, sustainability assessment, and linguistics, which will allow us to approach this problem from all angles and identify how we can best enable sustainable chemical innovation in the UK.

“As the need to address climate change grows more urgent, it’s critical that we remove barriers in the way of new materials that can build a green economy.”

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