by Caterina Plenzick, Anselm Wohlfahrt, Rafael Vinz & Lukas Keller

Which stakeholders have the greatest responsibility in the development of new closed material cycles?

Companies producing goods and services in Europe are investing significant resources in the circular processing of their products in order to improve the acceptance of their products but also to better manage by-products and waste. But a pivotal role must be played by the European Commission, which in fact launched the green deal, with the commitment to invest 50 % of the budget in the economy and green research over the next 7 years.

Which platforms, initiatives and regulations can contribute to encourage the major players in the supply chains to adopt circular economy principles? Not only as compliance with legislative obligations, but with the awareness that such an approach generates ecological, economic and social benefits both for local realities and for the global system?

As I said, the role of the EU is fundamental not only in dictating the guidelines, but also in establishing the deadlines for their implementation by the member countries and the sanctions that will be applied to those countries that do not meet their commitments. The new European Commission, which has just taken office, has launched a wide range of initiatives, known as the European Green Deal, continuing along the path already outlined by the previous Commission and witnessed by the policies aimed at promoting the transformation of the European economy into a “greener”, more resilient and circular. A fundamental element, already identified by the Juncker Commission, also concerns the role that the finance can play in orienting and selecting investments towards environmental sustainability objectives. To be fully effective, this role requires clear rules, well-designed incentives and a common knowledge framework, aimed at identifying in an unambiguous way and on the basis of the most recent scientific evidence those activities that can contribute to the objectives of sustainability. 

The bio-plastics sector is a sector with enormous potential, some predict that in the future these new materials may completely replace plastics derived from fossil resources. In the context of a sustainable economy, it is not enough to replace materials from finite resources with materials based on renewable ones, the main aim should be to maximise the use of these materials. Producing less materials, using less resources and then focusing on reuse, recycling and an efficient and safe re-introduction of those resources into the biosphere. One of the problems hindering the success of most bio-plastics is the lack of infrastructure for their proper and above all effective recycling. This in turn affects the amount of bio-plastics produced, which is not sufficient to trigger economic interests that justify investment in an effective and efficient recycling system. In the complexity of the problem, what approach could trigger changes? What could, for example, facilitate a systematic waste sorting? Rethinking the role of the consumers in the post-consumers products sorting system, could be a first step for a change? When are small separate cycles useful for a material/composite/product? What possibilities could advanced sorting systems offer in the future, for example based on the selection of different compounds?

In Italy and other European countries, the world of biodegradable bioplastics has focused on end-of-life rather than on the fossil or non-fossil origin of raw materials. Organic recycling of thin and ultra-thin packaging plastics, which is mainly responsible for pollution from plastics and micro-plastics, is the path where investments should be made as a matter of priority. The restoration of soil fertility, in rapid decline due to climate change and the massive use of monocultures and chemical fertilisers , can find in the production of compost from FORSU and market, agro-industrial and green management activities a powerful tool at the service of the bio-economy. The recyclability of biodegradable bioplastics, understood as material reuse and recycling, could lead to a difficult end of life management of durable plastics, since the molecular nature of bioplastics is different from that of the most widely used plastics, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, PET, polystyrene, etc.. It should also be noted that the last-mentioned plastics can now be obtained from monomers from renewable or partially renewable sources, with characteristics identical to those coming from fossil sources. According to my vision, the end-of-life of plastic packaging and that of durable materials should and could follow different paths, to avoid mutual contamination.

One of the aims of the bio-economy is to introduce new “bio” materials, understood as based on renewable natural resources, into the market – isn’t there a danger of even more massive use of natural resources and the opposite of what the bio-economy aims to achieve?

I am not an expert, but the estimates I have read about the use of agricultural soils for the production of bioplastics speak of a use of less than 0.1 %, easily found even in marginalised agricultural soils because they are not able to provide sufficient income for food production. But the real challenge for the bio-economy is to use agricultural and agro-food waste, a real mine, rich in carbohydrates and cellulose and molecules for fine chemistry, still not sufficiently widespread.

Where will bio-plastics be in 10 years? Are these simple substitutes for existing conventional plastics or do you think we will be able to think about new material cycles?

The bioplastics market will depend heavily on oil price trends and the environmental vision that will be acquired by emerging countries that are opening up massively to consumption. The growth of bioplastics, both the biodegradable and compostable ones and the non-biodegradable ones but from renewable sources, will be accompanied by processes of industrial and territorial symbiosis and by concepts such as chemical leasing, which will transform the citizen from consumer of a good to user of a service and actor in the production chain of the goods he uses.

What role does green chemistry play in the so called green growth? Can you give us a virtuous example in which the implementation of the principles of green chemistry has led to short but above all long term results?

An Italian example is Novamont, a leading company in green chemistry through the production of bio-monomers, bio-plastics and bio-lubricants. I have been following and collaborating with Novamont for many years, especially in the field of bio-plastics in agriculture, and I appreciate its social and industrial ethics. Concepts such as the revamping of chemical, pharmaceutical and oil product refining plants, the enhancement of the agricultural by-products of the areas in which it is located, the close link with local farms for the procurement of raw materials from non-food crops are the basis of Novamont’s philosophy of an integrated bio-refinery in the area.

Research Director CNR, Italian Representative at International Science Council. Department: Institute for Polymers, Composites and Biomaterials of the National Research Council of Pozzuoli, Naples. He is responsible for the laboratory for the synthesis of polymers and chemical modification of synthetic and natural polymers.