UK bioeconomy is part of the solution to eliminating plastic waste
Time is being called on many applications for conventional single-use plastics. Recent months have seen real momentum towards change: calls for a ‘latte levy’, a promised consultation on a tax for single-use plastics, the extension of plastic bag charges, and a strong spotlight on plastic pollution in the oceans. The environmental damage caused by oil-based plastics is clearly unacceptable and these developments are steps in the right direction. But they are not the full story.
While waste within the convenience economy should certainly be tackled, it is neither realistic nor (on balance) sustainable to work towards the total elimination of plastics for packaging and other convenience items. Plastics play a crucial role in preserving product both physically and from the effects of moisture, oxygen and other contaminants. Further, we cannot over-rely on recycling when we consider dwindling market interest for low-grade materials, issues around food contamination and the problem of hybrid materials such as coffee cups.
What we need is a strong focus on radically improving the sustainability of the plastics that we will continue to need. For these plastics, the clear goal should be to eliminate the use of fossil fuels. We must convert to materials based on natural, renewable resources and produce plastics that (after multiple use) are fully compostable, leaving minimal impact on the environment. Several of these products are already available on the market, but the key to challenging the dominance of oil-based plastics at scale is extending and developing the capability and range of such products with revolutionary material science.
Industrial biotechnology is becoming a cornerstone of the bioeconomy. It involves working with natural processes to extend biochemical pathways that can be used in manufacturing (often using a biological cell as a ‘mini-factory’). This sector has the potential to radically improve how we manufacture materials and allow us to produce entirely new materials, at the same time as protecting the environment and reducing costs.
At Biome Bioplastics, for example, our industrial biotechnology development programme has already successfully produced bio-based chemicals at sufficient scale for industrial testing from lignin (the woody materials in plants and an abundant renewable carbon source). Availability of these chemicals could revolutionise the bioplastics market, creating natural polymers that can compete with oil-based polymers on both cost and functionality. We believe that this type of work can deliver radical changes across the materials industry and provide a critical tool in the fight against plastic pollution.
As an active player in the bioeconomy, Biome Bioplastics welcomes the explicit encouragement for this sector laid out in the UK government’s 25 Year Environmental Plan. We believe that a thriving bioeconomy is one of the most powerful tools we have in the fight against plastic waste and call on industry and government alike to accelerate the development of new, sustainable materials that will ensure that plastic use and environmental impact can be rapidly uncoupled.