The Global Organisation for PHA is a member-driven, non-profit initiative to accelerate the development of the PHA-platform industry. Polyhydroxyalkanoate polymers (PHAs) provide a unique opportunity as a solution for reducing greenhouse gases, the environmental plastics pollution problem and establishing a circular economy, by offering a range of sustainable, high-quality and competitive products and materials based on renewable feedstocks and offering diverse end-of-life options. GO!PHA provides a platform for sharing experiences, knowledge and developments, and to facilitate joint development initiatives.
Here, Bio Market Insights’ Liz Gyekye catches up with Rick Passenier, founder and director of GO!PHA.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Please summarise your role and what you specialise in?
Rick Passenier (RP): With my background in Industrial Product Design and experience in designing products and value chains with natural materials, and circular solutions, I focus my efforts in creating propositions that fit the needs of the current and future markets. In the context of GO!PHA, this means that apart from my role as a founder I am heavily involved in the organisation building aspects and general management, I focus mainly on development projects, programs and partnerships related to product, market and application development. Currently we are raising funds to launch a series of PHA-based application showcases in various industries, such as packaging, fashion, agriculture and cosmetics.
LG: What makes PHA’s environmentally friendly? Is it their biodegradable properties?
RP: First of all, PHA’s are naturally occurring materials, produced by bacteria, which makes them natural, or bio-benign. Via industrial fermentation this process can be accelerated and the quality can be made very consistent. The beauty of PHA is that both the feedstock, the input for the bacteria can be very diverse and can be either renewable, such as sugar-, or vegetable oil- based, or some form of recycled carbon, such as biogas, syngas or even CO2. PHA is also one of the most versatile materials with respect to offering end-of-life options, it can be recycled, composted in home and industrial composting units, and is indeed biodegradable in soil and even in sweet and salt water conditions.
LG: What are the challenges of using PHAs?
RP: Currently PHA is a very popular family of materials, however scaling up the production capacity requires time and investments, so currently sourcing is the main challenge for bigger brands.
LG: Before going into your current role, what did you used to do?
RP: In 2013, together with a partner, I started my own consultancy and venture building organization, PACE Business Partners, driving sustainability and circular transitions in the chemicals, materials and manufacturing industry. We have grown rapidly and together with our partners we have created various concepts, platforms and companies. We have advocated the potential of PHA already for years, and when I came into contact with Jan Ravenstijn and Anindya Mukherjee in 2018, we decided to set up the Global Organisations for PHA to drive a cross-industry effort to enable this potential.
LG: What advice would you give to somebody starting out in this industry?
RP: PHA is a very interesting field of work due to the combination of bio-tech, material science and application development work, but this combination also makes teamwork a very important part of the success factor.
LG: In its new circular economy plan, the European Commission said that it would address emerging sustainability challenges by developing a policy framework on sourcing, labelling and use of bio-based plastics. What do you think about this?
RP: Indeed! And this is very important to do, and do it right, not only for bio-based plastics, but also for recycled plastics, circular solutions and natural materials. First of all, the right regulatory, economic and fiscal incentives can drive adoptions of sustainable solutions very rapidly as we have seen with for example banning free plastics bags in super markets. Voluntary mechanism, such as the Plastic Pacts are also very helpful. Secondly, industry development incentives are need to scale-up the industry rapidly and create more competitive offerings via economies of scale. Thirdly, clear customer and consumer communication is crucial to create clarity on footprint and end-of-life. For instance, up till now, there is still no European unified biodegradation standard in place, which makes it very confusing for waste managers, and consumers to make decisions about end-of-life options.
These policy frameworks are very important. However, we have noticed that these frameworks can cause confusion even among experts, especially if we work with bio-based, bio-degradable and naturally occurring materials altogether. We are therefore in close connection with the European Commission to provide inputs and feedback on these types of proposals.
LG: Will Covid-19 disrupt some brands’ sustainability commitments?
RP: Absolutely! If not the commitments itself, then it will change the speed in which brands will act. The current crisis exposes the flaws and vulnerability in the current global economic model, raising even more attention to the way we treat natural resources, including animals, and use the planet for our gains. My believe is that now is the moment that brands will realise more than ever what treats the environmental crisis may pose and that the bio- and circular economy can help in creating systems that are much more sustainable, starting with utilising renewable feedstocks, localised production and pollution prevention.
LG: What one thing would you like the bio-based industry to do better and why?
RP: Naturally, the environmental and economic potential of the bio-based industry is huge, and we are just scratching the surface of all the possibilities. Because the bio-based industry is so diverse and each segment has its own challenges and developments, companies tend to focus most of their efforts on their own niche, while there is much room for joint developments and communication which can really amplify the success that has been generated so far. My efforts so far have therefore been focusing on setting up cross-technology and cross-industry collaborations and partnerships to align on certification, standards, communication and application development so we can create a much bigger momentum and more relevant offerings.
LG: What’s your favourite sustainability product?
RP: Nowadays, there is a lot of competition between different sustainability concepts, such as plant-based products, plastic-free products, recycling and biodegradation, I don’t applaud this movement, as I think each solution deserves its place in the future product ecosystem. Therefore, I can really appreciate a wide variety of products that are created with care for the whole product-system. As such, we see numerous great examples such as the cosmetics industry, combining plant-based ingredients, natural and biodegradable (PHA) performance additives, recycled packaging and refill options.
Rick Passenier will be speaking at the World Bio Markets Conference, the leading assembly for the bio-based economy, in Amsterdam, the Netherlands, in November.