There’s a lot to comb through in the Biden administration’s plan to advance biotechnology and biomanufacturing in the United States, as laid out in a report released on March 22. The headline item for our industry, though, is that it wants to “displace more than 90% of today’s plastics” within 20 years with recyclable-by-design polymers formulated with bio-based feedstocks. Say what you will, but the 61-page “Bold Goals for U.S. Biotechnology and Biomanufacturing” report certainly lives up to its title.
The report builds on President Biden’s Executive Order, signed in September, to advance domestic biotechnology and biomanufacturing innovation. Biomanufacturing, said the White House in a fact sheet distributed with the report, has the “potential to drive new sustainable alternatives across industries, including plastics, fuels, and medicines. These innovations can unlock new solutions in health, climate change, energy, food security, agriculture, supply chain resilience, and national and economic security.”
The report includes several sections authored by various departments within the administration as well as the National Science Foundation, which led the project, and it is articulated around a number of themes. Many of the sections affect the plastics industry in one way or another simply because of the material’s ubiquity. The most directly relevant, though, is the section authored by the Department of Energy (DOE) devoted to furthering climate change solutions. In Theme 2 of that section, the report states that to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions in chemicals and materials production, expanded R&D investments are needed to develop low-carbon intensity chemicals and materials and to spur a circular economy for materials.
In terms of material development, “bio-based feedstocks and bioprocessing routes can reduce net GHG emissions, stabilize commodity chemical prices, and avoid supply chain disruptions,” notes the report. It cites a project at the Department of Energy, called Industrial Heat Shot, that involves the development of biomanufacturing processes that often operate at near room temperatures and require less process heat than conventional petroleum-based processes.
To further a circular economy, the report urges the expansion of bio-based plastics and recyclable-by-design polymers. It goes on to say that the “DOE is addressing this transition with its Strategy for Plastics Innovation, a DOE-wide approach focused on GHG emissions reduction, new recycling technologies, sustainable manufacturing, and polymers redesign for improved end-of-life properties.” Notably, it identifies among the R&D needs “selective chemical and biological methods” to recycle and/or upcycle plastic waste along with materials that have been redesigned to improve end-of-life properties. (A similar theme is explored in a recent article authored by Maximilian Weinhold in PlasticsToday, “Don’t Ban Plastic — Rethink How It’s Designed.”)
Commenting on the report, Bloomberg quoted the White House, which cautioned that these are goals, not commitments, that will require an all-hands-on-deck effort that includes private companies and national laboratories.
“I love it when I see big, bold, barely feasible goals, because then it tells you what you need to do to start creating the future you want,” said Arati Prabhakar, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology, which will lead implementation, reported Bloomberg. The plan also has the potential to significantly reduce dependence on fossil fuels, she said.
“It’s sort of crazy when you think about it, we’re digging up dead dinosaur molecules [Are we, though?] to make plastic and other materials so integral to the world that we live in,” she said in an interview before announcing the goals at the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference in Washington.
A bold plan? I would say, yes. Feasible? Now, that’s up for debate. Let us know what you think by leaving a comment.