POLYMERS AND COMPANIES TOWARDS THE EUROPEAN “GREEN DEAL” TRANSITION

Published: 26/03/2021

POLYMERS AND COMPANIES TOWARDS THE EUROPEAN “GREEN DEAL” TRANSITION

Where does the trend lead?

As we have already seen previously, knowing the lifespan  of a finished product will be an increasingly important element for the brand and for those engaged in the production of components.

This information will take on an even greater importance when the choice of a raw material for environmental problems, market or application needs falls on  partially, or completely, organic and biodegradable sustainable products.

In fact, the wide family of biobased plastics includes many sustainable and/or compostable materials with different technical qualities, some of which are still not completely under control.
The stability of Bio materials, in the absence of stable correctives, usually resulting from an evolved fine chemistry, can be an element of increased complexity when we come to the point of stating final product performances in time.
Starting from this simple, but not simplistic consideration, we will try to identify – broadly speaking – the logical pragmatic application position for these new materials.

As we have already written in the past, the world of biopolymers is evolving constantly.
It is comparable to a movie to which new frames are continually added.
At first glance it is difficult to say how it will end and who will win the Oscar among the various actors involved.
Finding an adequate interpretation, useful for imagining the future, is not easy.

We that have been following for some time this transition and evolution towards bio, by applying the evolutionary trends logic,  have identified at least 3 fundamental characteristics of the ideal future polymer. Three “values” that the ideal material will have to express in order to win the precious statuette.

 

The ideal polymer

These three characteristics are:

  1. it must not derive from primary sources intended for food. We know how important it is not to overlap with it (without any reference to the waste from food production).
  2. it must not require drinking water. Water is a primary resource for human life, it must be preserved.
  3. it must not require soil (eg. crops dedicated only to polymers production).

We know that even if all the earth’s land could be converted into plant species for the production of plastics, it would not be enough to replace 360 million tons per year of fossil polymers.

Therefore it is natural to imagine that the ideal plastic material will have to exploit other available resources, such as Air (with the gases and humidity it contains), the Sun Energy (its light spectrum), wastes of the “system ”(everything that results form an engineered or natural system).

Certainly at the basis of this idea there is always, and we cannot forget it, the production yield (the relationship between the quantity of raw materials introduced into the production process and the quantity of monomer produced).
The fossil polymers have already reached levels of over 90%, while for current biopolymers it is around 40%.
However, without taking this element into consideration (in the end it is a matter of a learning curve typical of any system) the rest of the movie shows a bright future for PHAs polymers and blends.

 

Application segments

At this point it is legitimate to ask: what are the sectors of interest for these new Bio materials?
Which are those segments driving the research to find a solution capable of replacing the most consumed standard polymers in the sector?

If we consider the current global production capacity of Bioplastics, shown in the graph below – year 2019 – we can see that even for these new materials there are two driving segments: packaging and textiles. Furthermore, they are constantly growing.

If we add up the three reference segments (rigid, flexible packaging and textile), it easy to see that also here, as happens for the fossil polymers, these 3 segments represent 50% of total consumption.
It is therefore quite clear that most of the research and development investments will be supported and absorbed by these sectors.
If we go back to the consumption graphs of fossil products, those previously seen (see part two), we now know that the predominant materials in these segments are: PET, PE and PP.

Therefore, the new ideal Bio material must have characteristics very similar to those expressed by these materials, with in addition the environmental “function”: recyclabily and biodegradability.

However, we know that fossil polymers often fail to meet the technical needs of some specific sectors (e.g. food packaging) with a single raw material. In some cases it is a synergistic combination of several materials (multi-layer technique) that solves the problems.
Well, at the moment this is also valid for biopolymers, which in addition to this are also the result of a chemistry that is still quite young and of which all the interactions and synergies at the macro molecular level are not completely known yet.

 

The properties required

However, the packaging sector requires precise and safe performance.
This is the reason why the beverage and liquids segment is currently oriented towards non-degradable hybrid biobased materials (eg bioPE and bioPET and soon bio-PP)1).

These new products have the advantage of significantly reducing the CO2e content per ton of raw material, even going from a debt to a strong CO2 credit (e.g. bioPE -3ton x 1ton), providing the same guarantees as their fossil brothers, which are more demanding on the environmental front.

In the flexible packaging sector, which includes for example “shoppers” made with thin-thickness films (35-45 µm) and more in general where the life span is generally short, we find instead compounds based on  starchy or fermentation products (such as polylactic acid PLA), mixed with compostable materials, predominantly of fossil origin (eg PBAT, PBS, PCL) which compensate the lack of elasticity and toughness of Bio materials with thin-thickness.

The packaging segment, in addition to moving large volumes of raw material, has another peculiarity that favors the use of degradable biobased materials: the short life cycle of the products.
This feature will very soon also lead bioplastics to be confronted with the theme of circular economy and virtuous recovery and  recycling practices, all still to be imagined2).

 

Biobased or bio-degradable?

The choice to use non-degradable biobased polymers (from renewable sources), rather than biodegradable and compostable materials, is actually two sides of the same coin.

Two different ways of satisfying the transition required by the UE, towards a system with a lower environmental impact in relation to greenhouse gas emissions.
They represent two different end-of-life paths (recycling versus compostability), but both achieve the common goal of reducing the CO2e content (Carbon Footprint) per ton produced.
Without forgetting the not less important point concerning the reduction of the overall consumption of traditional fossil materials.
We are still at the beginning of the journey, it can be understood from the fact that for now all these biobased solutions are worth just over 1% of whole fossil plastics produced and consumed every year in the world. But let’s not forget,  the trend towards organic is unstoppable!

 

OK, you need to get involved, but how?

There is a growing perception between converters and OEMs of having to participate in the evolution / transition with their production system, in harmony with EU objectives. The most common question that converters and end users are asking is: what is the most logical solution for me and for my production?

In the recent past we have seen how many entrepreneurs have found themselves unprepared for this new paradigm.
But it is now clear to all of them that this new situation will continue to require the utmost attention for the next twenty years.
It is also clear to most that the necessary technical solutions – the materials – are not all ready “on the shelf”, even if they are rapidly evolving.
For this reason, the new steps that must be taken must be carefully considered and the potential ideal solutions implemented step by step, avoiding unnecessary leaps in the dark that are harmful to the company.

The circular economy with fossil and bio-polymers is a fairly recent reality and at the moment not easy to interpret. This is why at a global level studies of mathematical and statistical models of various kinds are being carried out, which will allow in the future to better direct production systems towards the best solutions depending on type of products and application sectors.

Meanwhile, due to the regulations that can sometimes enter forcefully in the game (see the law on disposable products), we believe industries should proactively start to assess the most likely scenario for their final products.

How?

For example, by asking themselves a first simple question: what category does my product belong to?

 

Classifying products

Now without entering into the details of each application but aiming to stimulate the start of a process of reflection, what we propose below is a rough analysis of the type of goods produced by the company, in relation to its target market. We think it could be a useful exercise to startplacing your products within a grid which, although still in “wide mesh”, could represent a first rationalization of the problem. The grid we hypothesized divides goods into three macro categories: non-durable, semi-durable and durable.

Once these first macro categories have been created, knowing that it is not always all white or all black, it will be possible to introduce other not less important variables. For example, the goods produced could belong to the category of mass consumption (eg food, clothing, consumer electronics), or to discretionary goods (cosmetics, beauty, cigarettes, clothing accessories). Or, instead, belong to a not yet defined category that at the moment we will define as: Other. In this we will insert what is not easily and immediately categorized.

 

Applications and life span

We think that the products in this box will require a more in-depth business analysis, perhaps the conception of an ad hoc project that will allow them to be included in the best circular economy, depending on the materials chosen and on their design complexity.

Below we present the grid we imagined in which we have inserted, by way of example, to stimulate reflection, some products or product categories. The usage times indicated for each category of the grid must be adapted, refined, according to the sector it belongs to or the specific product or market.

PRODUCT CATEGORY NON DURABLE
(Usage time from purchase)
3 days/<6 months
SEMI DURABLE
(Usage time from purchase)
>5 months/<3 years
DURABLE
(Usage time from purchase)
>3 years
Consumer products Quick use consumer products
Fresh food
Daily use
Drinks
Cell phones
Bulbs, Medicines
DIY  products
Computers
Clothes
Appliances, Plugs, Sockets, Switches, Lamps
Discretionary goods Cosmetics
(creams, lipsticks…)
Tobacco
Creams
Alcoholics,
Sport articles
Watches
Cars  – Bikes
Sports equipment
Other Printer cartridges
Pens-Markers
Contact lenses
Supplements
Kitchen  accessories
School equipment and accessories
Toys (kids and pets)
Summer  articles
Furniture and Furnishings
Engineering articles:
electrical cables – pipes … Work tools

 

The table was conceived starting from the forecasted end of the product. That is, by estimating a life span of the good from the moment of purchase until the moment in which its purpose is over and will have to be disposed of.

If we bear in mind the final goal, to reduce the environmental impact according to the guidelines drawn up by the EC, our attention will inevitably be focused on what the final customer will do with that product or residuals at the end. Where will he dispose of it? How will it re-enter the production circuit? We imagine that at this point a sort of “reverse engineering” will have to be implemented to reach a complete solution.

A process during which the first questions to be asked must be precisely these. The answers will probably influence and guide the product design strategies, the post-sales distribution strategies as well as the company commercial communication strategy. We think it can be useful to take a first step in the constructive search for the answer to our legitimate questions: what to do, how, when, to be in line with the new EU paradigm?
A great opportunity to gather all the top functions of company activities around a project table, to focus serenely on what you want to do and what you can do, considering also the related implementation costs, according to the expected results. Without forgetting the time as variable: immediately, in the short term, in the medium to long term.

 

First we will accept that starting from now, like it or not, the theme of circularity will from now on always be in the background of every corporate decision-making phase, before we see practical and intelligent solutions born from the base, not dictated by external pressure.

The more the product has a rapid, non-durable life cycle, the greater the need to find an eco-sustainable solution, both from the production point of view (emissions during the process) and from its disposal after use, including its minor or residual parts. In particular, for non-durable and widely consumed products (eg food), the new Bio-compostable materials offer an excellent, additional solution for their virtuous disposal: composting. One option that solves the age-old problem of contamination from food residues that has made the recycling of fossil materials more complex. Furthermore, the chemical-physical properties of compostable biopolymers offer sufficient guarantees in the short period of work required of them. The compostability of biopolymers can be an additional solution also for the other two categories of the first column of the grid (Discretionary goods and Others). However the complexity of some external elements (eg chemical substances in contact with the polymers) can represent an obstacle to the correct compost process, according to the EN13432 standard.

The second and third columns of the table contain products defined as Semi-Durable and Durable, for which totally Bio solutions are not always immediately viable.
The products that fall into these categories, having a longer life expectancy, must be able to ensure adequate performance over time and, in the current state of the biopolymers offer, only in a few cases will they be able to rely safely on totally biodegradable and compostable materials.

The company’s research and development will have to make an extra effort to embrace completely organic solutions. But, as we said at the beginning, it will still be only a matter of time.
The evolution seen in some compounds and in some new polymers already today allows us to make ambitious choices also in Semi-Durable goods and, subsequently, in Durable ones.

We believe that the regulations of the sectors involved must also adapt, to support and help the efforts of companies towards the green transition; without prejudice to the necessary restrictions on user safety.

As a natural fact, we cannot forget that these Durable goods must guarantee precise safety standards, according to precise rules, for the entire time of their service, even beyond the supplier’s warranty period.
However, it is essential also for these products to find the best solutions capable of reducing the amount of CO2 charged to them, both in the production phase and during the disposal process at the end of their life.
For emissions in the production phase, the LCA analysis of the manufacturing processes will certainly guide company decisions to find harmony with EU guidelines.
For the raw materials used, on the other hand, it will be logical to focus attention on those materials that, with the same chemical, physical, thermal and mechanical performance, have a lower CO2 content.
In addition the most appropriate disposal solution will be searched and indicated to the consumer, in the product sheet or directly on the label.

For Durable products at the moment the solution lies in three types of raw materials: non-degradable biobased (e.g. bioPE), biobased-hybrids (e.g. bioPET) or fossils products with a high content of recycled materials coming from industrial products (IQ) or post consumer products.
All these materials can participate as protagonists to the cause of the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions  and allow industries to start the transition without forcing engineers and designers to give up the known technical performances, necessary to continue to satisfy the sector regulations (eg CEI-IEC for electricity sector).

At the moment for Durable goods the chapter “product disposal” is largely still to be written. But it is becoming increasingly clear to everyone that this chapter can no longer be left in the hands of the end user.
Not in the face of an ambitious goal like the European one of 2050, where landfill will no longer be a viable option.
The famous motto “prevention is better than cure” will have to be applied literally and this will bring a wave of new technical, commercial and communicative solutions, never seen before.
New planning and new lifestyles that are more respectful of the planet that hosts us.

The entry of bioplastics in the game has opened a new phase, albeit still under development, which must not be underestimated! The trend towards bio, we wrote it long ago, is and will be unstoppable!
To address the issue of bioplastics, their life cycle and the management of corporate communication on the subject, we point out a beautiful guide by European Bioplastic Association, published in 20173).
We believe this document is very useful, an excellent starting point for those who want to face the transition to organic with determination and awareness.

 

The importance of flexibility

So, to conclude, even if the initial solution may not immediately be the most elegant (eg completely organic recyclable and compostable) or the cheapest, this must not slow down the search for the best company positioning in the new territory designed by the European Union.
Fundamental to the accomplishment of this are flexibility, pro-activity and involvement of the entire value chain of the segment involved.

This desirable participation will make it possible to develop solutions that can be translated into ideas capable of inspiring or influencing the legislators, thus avoiding a reaction in the wake of an emotional drive as happened in recent times.

Borrowing a metaphor dear to the late Jack Welch (GE), change is like a bus that cannot be missed and that can be boarded as a passenger or a driver.
In our opinion,  this specific bus  will have to be boarded quickly and possibly in the driver’s seat or right next to him,  certainly not as a passenger.

 


  1. In the graph “Global Production Capacity of Bioplastics 2019” among the materials “others” in the biobased column a new polymer is indicated: PEF (Polyethylene Furanoate). It is not compostable according to the EN13432 standard, but it is degradable and recyclable according to the company. It is a polyester from plants made by Avantium company (www.avantium.com), and positioned as an alternative to current PET and bio-PET. The company indicates that production will start by 2024 (10,000 tons per year).
    The material should enter the circuit of bottles for mineral water and carbonated soft drinks. The material appears to have superior performance in terms of barrier to O2 and CO2 than PET.
  2. Unfortunately, we know that only some supply chains of Re-cupero, Ri-ciclo, are now well organized (eg glass, metal, paper and cardboard, PET) and allow a reintegration of post-consumer products in the original production chain. While for many other plastic materials there are still several open variables that limit their reuse in the original production cycle. From European statistics, we  know only about 33% of them are recycled. 42% ends up in the waste-to-energy plant and 25% in landfills. An unsustainable model in perspective, which requires reflection on the part of all market players, including end customers.
  3. This is the website where it is possible to download the European Bioplastics guide:  https://docs.european-bioplastics.org/2016/publications/EUBP_environmental_communications_guide.pdf

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