SATW Forum on «Biobased polymers - Biopolymers».

From The Forum moderators

 “One word: plastics” - this is a quote in the film “The graduate” (1967). The neighbor Mr. McGuire tries to convince young Ben (played by Dustin Hoffmann) that there is a great future in plastics. It seems that plastics have turned from a blessing into a burden today as the European Union plans to ban some single use plastic products in the future. The green parties and VBSA (Verband der Betreiber Schweizerischer Abfallverwertungsanlagen) in Switzerland plan a similar prohibition.

The main reason and cause for concern is the formation of micro- and nanoparticle debris from plastic products or textiles, which were not properly recycled or disposed of. These particles can be introduced into the food chain, especially in the aquatic environment, with unknown consequences. The accumulation of huge amounts of plastics by water currents are already well known in several parts of the high seas, the most prominent being the “pacific garbage patch”. Meanwhile, investigations showed that all major Swiss lakes (except mountain lakes) are also contaminated with (partly toxic) plastic particles. Over 6.5 million tons of plastics-recyclate are produced annually across Europe. Social and political pressure, however, are increasing and the European thermoplastics industry must adapt its recycling capacity to higher demands. And this will probably not be sufficient as demonstrated by the plans of the EU.

Small single use convenience products typically slip through these elaborated and established plastic recycling schemes. There is also confusion in the classification of biopolymers, bio-based polymers or biodegradable polymers. This does not surprise, considering the wide array of sugar-based, protein, lactic acid (LA), sebacic acid (SA) or polyethylenfuranoate (PEF) based bioplastics, just to mention a few. One would also think that the term bioplastics is used for polymers produced from natural renewable raw materials, which are naturally biodegradable. This, however, is not the case: there are petrochemically derived polymers, which are biodegradable, and “biopolymers” that are not, such as bio-based PET (polyethylene terephthalate) from e.g. molasses. Another limitation is that, according to the lead market initiative, “biopolymers” are not to be produced from food competing raw materials.

Besides the drop-in replacement of classic, petrochemical polymers, there is a demand for innovative, new biodegradable polymers in seminal sectors such as the medical sector, 3D printing, packaging and others. The above-mentioned sugar-based PEF for example is less permeable for O2 or CO2 than PET – an interesting characteristic for the packaging industry. The market volume of bio-based polymers increases steadily but remains low because of the constantly growing total polymer market. To change this unsatisfactory situation, steering mechanisms are required on one hand. On the other hand, targeted research and development efforts are also necessary to improve the situation.

In the academic sector, two institutes of the University of Applied Sciences Western Switzerland HES-SO are particularly active in developing bio-based polymers. The School of Engineering and Architecture of Fribourg with its institute ChemTech is working on bio-based, smart and degradable new polymers for the packaging industry and is a partner in the EU-Projekt BioSmart. The Institute of Life Technologies at Sion is developing biopolymers from sustainable carbon sources. A boost in expertise concerning bacterial biopolyester production (PHA) could be gained with the EU project Synpol, where synthesis gas was used as carbon source. This technology is currently applied to gas fermentations where CO2 is converted to PHA leading to a negative carbon footprint. The institute is also active in designing new PHAs using enzymatic modification and biosynthesis of block copolymers suitable for medical applications (e.g. biocompatible coatings and nanoparticles drug delivery systems).

With regards to industry, there are several smaller companies working with polymers, but mostly for medtech or pharmaceutical applications. Nevertheless, some SMEs are also considering the production of bio-based monomers for polymer manufacturing. The Swiss Academy of Engineering Sciences (SATW) is hosting a Forum on November 23rd this year, in order to assess the present and the future of bio-based polymers in Switzerland. Invited stakeholders from industry, academia, government and industry associations are going to discuss the actual and future relevance of bio-based polymers for the Swiss economy and elaborate scenarios and framework for the future, based on the experience of the participants.

The Forum moderators:
Roger Marti - HES-SO Fribourg
Hans-Peter Meyer - Expertinova AG
Claudia Schärer - SATW
Manfred Zinn - HES-SO Valais-Wallis