“If you can get a collection system for food waste it really opens up the market for compostable material.”
Today, bioplastics are becoming more common sight and using this material is considered one way to reduce environmental impacts, oil consumption and increase the use of agricultural feedstocks. Some of the newly developed materials even have properties to make them superior to regular plastics. Although it is still a small market and is suited to only a limited amount of applications, more and more industries are opting to use the material.
UK-based Biome Bioplastics makes both bio-based and biodegradable products.
Here, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye catches up with Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Bioplastics.
Paul Mines (PM): We have been going for more than ten years and we have 45 employees. We are based in Southampton and we have several elements to our business. First, we buy in a whole range of raw materials like starch, polylactic (PLA) and polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). We then compound these materials together. For this part of the business, we do all of our R&D in Southampton.
Second, we manufacture all of our bioplastic polymers in the US and Germany and then we send them to film blowers, injection moulders and other bioplastic specialists.
All in all, we compound materials together and work with a range of different customers.
So far, we have found that we have gotten more traction from our mid-size customers, both in the US and Europe. However, our predominant sales come from the US.
Typically, we focus on the technical aspects of bioplastics. This includes areas where high heat stability, chemical resistance or functional performance is required. So, where some companies might focus on the volume aspects like plastic bags for supermarkets, we focus on areas that are technically more demanding.
At the moment, bioplastics are only a small portion of the total plastic market. In the UK, we think the total bioplastic market is around 10,000 tonnes per year. Whereas, the conventional plastic market is around 2.5 million tonnes. Bioplastics is still quite small. There are two elements to this – performance and price. Bioplastics are still more expensive than conventional plastics.
LG: Have you been doing any interesting research in the next-generation of bioplastics?
PM: We have been working on a research programme for the last five years in order to help drop the price down and improve the performance of bioplastics. In relation to this, we work with a number of universities who are helping to build the next-generation of materials. At the moment, we are up to multiple kilo stages of new materials. However, these materials are still a few years away before they reach the market.
Bio content of current bioplastics probably averages 60% in the market. One of the other main challenges to new materials going forward is the aim to increase this bio content percentage.
There is a demonstrable need for compostable packaging or multi-layered packaging, especially when the packaging can be used to capture food waste that would otherwise end up in the residual stream or contaminate recycling systems.
In general, bioplastics has gone from being a fringe activity to becoming a mainstream one going forward. It’s a really interesting time to be in the bioplastics space.
LG: What is your opinion on the future of composting?
PM: Other countries have moved in the direction of composting quite quickly. The UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) under the Environment Secretary Michael Gove has clearly set out a plan of consultation that food waste should be collected separately. In the UK, if you move from one local authority to another you have a variety of different recycling systems. In some places you have one bin. Whereas, in other places you have five bins. This makes it very difficult for manufacturers and brands to decide what to put on the market. If you take the example of the Co-op’s (@coopuk) compostable bag, it has only put it out in stores where they know there are composting facilities nearby to those stores. It makes it very difficult for brands to say we are going to select compostable packaging because in many places there is no collection of food waste. So, people end up putting compostable packaging in the bin that goes to landfill or the bin that goes to recycling.
However, due to the Government’s plan to stop food waste going to landfill, there needs to be a collection system for food waste that collects for businesses and individuals. Defra is consulting on this at the moment. If you can get a collection system for food waste it really opens up the market for compostable material. There are lots of things to do. You have to make sure consumers understand where to put the right material and say “this bit of packaging you can put in your food waste bin and this bit of packaging you cannot”. This has lots to do with labelling and education, for example.
LG: What were you doing before this role?
PM: I ran a plastic packaging business making toothpaste tubes and before that I worked at the chemicals company ICI. I had done a few stints in the oil-based packaging industry, but I decided it was time to really look at this industry in a different way.
LG: What’s been the biggest challenge in growing the company?
PM: It’s the incumbency of an oil-based plastic industry that has done very well. Conventional plastic is also very cheap. The reason plastic has done well is because its scale is huge. Bioplastics are in the likes of coffee, nutritional drinks, cereals, health bars and organic packaging. It’s about trying to get that price down and get broader acceptance of the material. It’s only a small proportion of total plastic demand.
LG: What’s the next big trends?
PM: I think it’s in multi-layer structures. A lot of packaging these days require oxygen barriers or water vapour barriers, for example. This is achieved with conventional packaging by having mixtures of various plastics put together which does not make them recyclable. However, we are now starting to get shelf lives with a multi-bioplastic structure. For example, currently, you can get shelf lives of around 9-12 months and this product will be compostable afterwards in an in-vessel composting facility. So, extending the shelf lives of compostable packaging is one big trend.
There is another big trend in relation to home composting. Mid-sized and large brands want to help boost their sustainable solutions and want to move towards bioplastics. However, they know that the infrastructure is not there yet. Nevertheless, some of their markets have home composting capabilities and we have pushes towards home compostable packaging. Personally, I see this as an intermediate step rather than this being the final solution. However, a number of our customers are asking us to come up with a home composting solution. The challenge with this issue is getting the material right. We have to ask questions like, “can the average consumer diligently manage their own composters?” and “how quickly will the materials biodegrade in a home composter?”
LG: What advice would you give to someone else looking to launch their own company/product in this space?
PM: Just go for it. There has never been a better time to be in this space. To some extent this is due to wildlife broadcaster David Attenborough, the public and the government bringing the issue of plastic pollution to the top of the news agenda. If you have got a good idea and have understood its economics just go for it.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
PM: I think it’s probably solar PV. Solar energy has demonstrated more than anything that the technology that was on the edge and niche has now become economic and in the mainstream. It has provided significant energy for the UK. This has only happened in the last ten to 15 years. It’s incredible how quickly solar power has entered the mainstream. There is a strong parallel to how I think bioplastics will be viewed in ten years’ time.
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