Now that we have entered 2020, it would be great to reflect what sustainability opportunities and challenges face businesses for the year ahead. In fact, Bio Market Insight’s Liz Gyekye has been busy catching up with key stakeholders within the bioeconomy to explore the key trends for 2020 and beyond. Here, she catches up with Marco Jansen, Circular Economy & Sustainability leader for Europe & Asia at plastics specialist Braskem.
What will be your company’s main focus for 2020?
At Braskem, we are very excited about the challenges and opportunities coming in 2020. The company, which was formed in 2002, is setting out on a journey towards a new plastics economy – one built around two main concepts: renewability and recycling, both important pillars of the circular economy.
This year, we will be looking to approve expansion of our capacity and portfolio of renewable products. We have big plans for our I’m green range, which gives our customers access to some of the most sustainable resins on the market today. Furthermore, the company will be making announcements around our development of renewable intermediate chemicals, which have the potential to reduce the carbon footprint of a range of materials. Switching to recycling, Braskem will be offering PCR resins in Europe for the first time in our history, and look out for news around our partnerships that will help us take the next step towards closing the loop.
What are the biggest challenges facing the bioeconomy sector in regards to biobased plastics and the circular economy?
There are several big challenges facing the sector, namely: scalability, sustainability and regulation. In order to conduct the circular economy at commercial scale, companies like ourselves need to overcome the technical and economic barriers that impact our ability to produce and market our products. Scalability is a challenge for a relatively young bio-based industry competing against already established fossil industries. Whilst R&D funding is available, there can be issues around access to feedstock and financing when you go beyond the pilot phase.
Lifecycle thinking is essential for sustainability, demanding long-term strategic planning and investment. Standardisation, certification and labelling of renewable products is under constant review.
Regulatory issues buffet the industry, which has never enjoyed full-throated supported from legislators. In reality, the sector requires long-term regulatory certainty and a level playing field with conventional plastics and other materials, with fair taxation based on environmental performance. Due to all these, businesses may not be able to move as quickly as society or legislators would like them to.
Lastly, and perhaps most crucially, we face the challenge of convincing and educating citizens of the benefits of biopolymers. For example, it is important that they understand that bio-based plastics are often conventionally recyclable within existing waste streams. For example, it’s important that people learn to differentiate our bio-based polyethylene that carries recycling numbers 2 or 4, from other bio-based polymers carrying recycling number 7, that need to be composted.
How will Braskem respond to those challenges?
Increasing the quantity and quality of responsibly-sourced bio-based intermediate chemicals and resins requires large-scale investment and collaboration. Braskem is looking for opportunities in order to improve the scope of our production or our knowledge of innovative new processes and materials. Whilst Braskem is already a leader in the field of bio-based plastics, we can develop our offering via partnerships with other companies or research institutions. The same can be said around our involvement in the circular economy: our global commitment outlines how we will “engage partnerships in understanding, preventing and solving the mismanagement of plastics residues” and “develop new technologies, business models and systems for improving the recycling and recovery of materials”.
When it comes to sustainability, it has always been embedded in Braskem’s approach to our plastic products, but particularly our bio-based portfolio. We completed our third LCA of our I’m green polyethylene last year, and constantly review our supply chain via our code of conduct. Our environmental claims are vital to our business, and our customers have come to expect those very high standards to continue. Whilst regulatory issues affect us we will support public policies that aim to improve solid waste management and the recycling chain. European Union circular economy policies have tended to focus on the end-of-life, which we feel is justified, but more attention could be placed on creating a holistic incentive system for bio-based and recycled materials that have demonstrable environmental benefits.
With regards to the communication issue, we believe that transparency is always the best strategy. For example, when we check if our partners are following our guidelines to adopt our I’m green logo, we also gently remind them in case they have forgotten to use the recycling symbol. In the end, it is the brand owner’s decision how and what they want to communicate, but when they adopt our logo, we have the opportunity to make a positive influence.
What are the biggest opportunities for your business?
Braskem has been growing rapidly since its inception, with the company now known largely as the world leader in bio-based recyclable plastics. We are in a unique position to capitalize on this, by offering brands and retailers around the world the chance to transition away from fossil fuel derivatives. We believe that the only growth worth pursuing is a sustainable one, and so we see opportunities to leverage our polymer knowledge to close the loop. We predict that the demand for recyclates will grow exponentially in the next 20 years, and we plan to offer our customers such options in the near future.
Furthermore, we see great opportunities in almost all the regions of the world, but none more so than Asia. The company has plans to develop closer commercial connections there. It is also a key priority for us to harness the expertise and energy of businesses established in the East, and to learn from the social and technical developments happening in those countries. Many already consider Asia as the area of the world facing the biggest challenges around the use of plastics, but it is also experiencing a boom that could make it the epicenter for the circular economy.
What one thing would you like the bio-based industry to do better and why?
The bio-based industry unquestionably needs to communicate better. We are beginning to find that the term “bioplastic” is unhelpful, as it actually confuses people, and we are phasing out the use of this term. Unfortunately, some players insist on using standalone unsubstantiated claims such as “biodegradable” or even “plastic free” which only create confusion and ammunition to criticise the bio-based industry.
We have also sometimes been slow or ineffective in dealing with criticism leveled at us as a sector, and there is more we can do to convey the environmental benefits of our materials. That may be a problem of reach, as we consist mainly of B2B companies, but it may also be due to a lack of coordination. This might be about to change however, given that there is now a trend towards collaboration within the industry. Companies are increasingly working together to develop renewable and circular solutions. This is a sign that the sector is becoming more mature. We must not stop at developing climate-neutral products, but we must invest more in selling them. It requires transparency, vision and the buy-in of our customers, brand owners and retailers particularly.
If you want to read more about what is going to be hot for the bioeconomy this year, please download our World Bio Markets 2020 Outlook for more interesting stakeholder views.