Bio-based economy “very mixed”, says nova-Institute

The chief executive of nova-Institute has called the state of the European bio-based economy “very mixed” and urged greater political will for high-volume implementation.

Michael Carus, who heads up the research and consultancy specialising on the bio-based and carbon-based economy, says that despite research and development continuing to run at full speed, and biotechnology and chemical catalysts being developed, actual implementation remains difficult.

“Pilot and demonstration plants can be financed more easily than before,” he said, but added that in European countries “the focus is more on technology exports than on implementation at home”.

The sectors enjoying most success are those not in direct competition with petrochemicals, explains Carus. “This is the area of fine chemicals, such as food ingredients, flavours, body care, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals. The new building blocks offer new functions and properties that petrochemistry cannot provide in this way.”

Carus believes that politicians are scared to burn their fingers at chemistry, while the chemical and plastics industries have image problems and want to change little about their raw material base.

He continues: “At the same time, the use of food crops is politically taboo, even though starch and sugar crops are available at reasonable prices and do not endanger food safety. There are bottlenecks primarily in proteins. In Germany, good sugar beet locations are being phased out due to overproduction. Second generation sugar, on the other hand, will not get off the ground technologically or economically.”

Carus also dismisses bio-based roadmaps as being too general and more of a research agenda than an implementation one. “Concrete measures and instruments that would support a stronger market penetration are rare,” he says. “Moreover, there are often considerable contradictions: while research and development are constantly developing and optimising new biodegradable plastics, the European plastics strategy then does not give them any credit in terms of contributing to the sustainable development.”

The market, he says, is currently in a critical phase. Many companies have proactively invested in bio-based materials and products because they expected the legislator to take appropriate measures, but these are not yet coming. At the same time, criticism from NGOs rains down as soon as biomass is linked to land use.

“Now that policy is more focused on recycling, many companies are losing interest in bio-based. The fact that there are still success stories is due to individual brands that continue to rely on bio-based and to consumers who no longer want normal petroleum-based plastics,” he says.

He believes that bio-based feedstocks are required to green the chemical industry, but points to the need for an overall strategy.

“The bio-based economy must become part of an overarching renewable carbon strategy, in which it represents one important pillar,” he says.