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It’s that time of year again—the time to look back at what was, and to look forward at what will be. Or, at least, shall we say, at what might be.

Karen Laird

December 27, 2015

5 Min Read
“It always seems impossible until it’s done”

It’s that time of year again—the time to look back at what was, and to look forward at what will be. Or, at least, shall we say, at what might be.

One of the more striking developments in 2015 was the increasing visibility of the concept of the circular economy. It’s a concept that has been bandied around for the past several years, but this year, it seems suddenly to have zoomed into focus. The circular economy impacts on every aspect of economic activity as we know it. The linear economic system we have today—‘take, make, waste’—has been extraordinarily successful in delivering economic development during the 20th century.

eu-circular-package_635.pngYet, there are a number of signs that this has started to falter. Hence, as the price volatility of commodities continues to grow, combined with the increasing threat of resource depletion, the search for alternatives has intensified. Defined by the World Economic Forum as “an industrial system that is restorative or regenerative by intention and design,” the circular economy is rapidly capturing attention as a way of decoupling growth from resource constraints. It is a system, therefore, in which, among other things, renewably sourced plastics will play a major role.

It is also a role that still remains to be defined, at least in Europe. Biobased materials will ideally tap the waste feedstock from other value streams (e.g. agricultural waste, and manufacturing byproducts such as wood chips). However, earlier this month, the European Commission adopted an ambitious Circular Economy Package, which includes revised legislative proposals on waste to stimulate Europe's transition towards a circular economy.

In it, the Commission acknowledges that 'biobased materials present advantages due to their renewability, biodegradability and compostability.' Yet, here, too, enough work remains to be done: the proposals fall short of fully recognizing the advantages of organic waste collection for Europe, leading European Bioplastics Chairman François de Bie to point out that “even though production will continue to grow, forecasts show that in 2019, more than 95% of bioplastics production capacities will be located outside of Europe. If EU Member States want to make full use of bioplastics' environmental, economic and social potential, they need to tackle the problem of limited economic and political support.”

“It always seems impossible until it’s done,” said Nelson Mandela, who, in his time met numerous challenges and overcame seemingly unsurmountable obstacles. But he also said: “We must use time wisely and forever realize that the time is always ripe to do right.” 

The transition towards a circular economy offers exciting opportunities for the bioplastics industry, both in Europe and elsewhere, wherever this shift is taking place. And, while no one expects this transition to be complete any time soon, the good news is that it has now gotten under way, and that renewably sourced materials are viewed as part of the solution.  As the Ellen MacArther Foundation points out, in the future: “The rapidly evolving materials landscape could be screened and potentially guided towards more reusable materials—potentially even those that are fully biobased and regenerative. A take-back system would also be needed to ensure that products are returned and reconfigured as feedstock”—closing the loop, in other words.

Another aspect of the circular economy is a new way of looking at pollution by greenhouse gasses. As the importance of carbon capture and storage becomes increasingly evident, a development that looks as if it actually has legs is that of carbon dioxide-based polymers. It’s an area that is generating enormous interest, especially as one of the top headline-grabbing issues of 2015 around the world was that of climate change. Floods, droughts, typhoons, retreating glaciers, melting pole caps, wildly erratic weather conditions: the effects were everywhere.

With emissions from burning fossil fuels—‘old dinosaurs,’ as my colleague Clare Goldsberry recently wrote—constituting the major contributor to the problem, it’s heartening to see that serious efforts are finally being made to address the problem. According to the International Energy Agency, 82% of the world’s energy supply is derived from fossil fuels. While cleaner energy sources are on the rise, overall energy demand is expected to grow 37% by 2040, making immediate carbon mitigation solutions even more urgent.

Plastics based on carbon dioxide “pollution” offer one promising route to carbon sequestration. A pioneer in this area is Novomer, based in Waltham, MA, which recently captured a pair of honors at the 2015 Polyurethanes Technical Conference for, among other things, its competitively priced CO2-based Converge Polyol RF-x polyols. Yet, a host of other companies are also active in the development of polymers derived from greenhouse gas feedstock: Asahi Kasei (Tokyo), Oak Bio (Sunnyvale, CA), Newlight Technologies (Costa Mesa, CA), Mango Materials (San Francisco, CA) and Covestro (Leverkusen, Germany) are just five that immediately spring to mind.

Also, interesting in this context is the launch in September 2015 of the NRG Cosia Carbon XPRIZE prize, aimed at spurring innovations that will convert CO2 emissions into valuable products. It will run through March of 2020 and a total of US$20M will be awarded to winning teams.

“Through innovation in carbon capture technology, we hope to challenge the world’s brightest minds to find a solution that helps solve emissions problems, and simultaneously creates viable products that we use every day,” said Sicily Dickenson, Chief Marketing Officer, NRG.

Plants do it without even thinking and so does coral. They turn carbon dioxide into sugars, starches and cellulose using the sun as their energy source. It’s something to look forward to: a cleaner, renewable, economically viable alternative and a sustainable future for when we finally finish up all the old dinosaurs.

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