2 April 2019

“New packaging solutions based on renewable resources” – CIRC-PACK talks to major bioplastics player Novamont

A market leader in the design of bioplastics, Italy’s Novamont is also one of CIRC-PACK’s key project partners – leading on the project demonstration of innovative bioplastics from renewable resources. To get the latest on developments at the company and Novamont’s contribution to CIRC-PACK, we spoke to bioplastics R&D expert Alessandro D’Elicio.

A partner within the CIRC-PACK project, Novamont is a global leader in the production of innovative bioplastics. Why did the company decide to go down this route?

Novamont was founded in 1989 and its roots lie in the Montedison School of Materials Science – set up to realise the ambitious project of some of its chemical  researchers:  to integrate chemistry, agriculture and the environment. Today we are in a leading position in bioplastics and we are also involved in the development of bioproducts such as biolubricants, biochemicals and cosmetic ingredients from renewable sources.

We promote an approach to the circular bioeconomy based on the efficient use of renewable resources and on the regeneration of local areas, building world-first plants based on proprietary technologies and revitalising industrial sites that are decommissioned or no longer competitive to create new industries, new products and new jobs.

Within the CIRC-PACK project, we have the possibility of creating and testing new biopolymers using alternative bio-based raw materials for the packaging sector. Moreover, we have to opportunity to collaborate with partners along the packaging value chain, from the public, private and non-profit sectors, as well as research organisations, to create innovative sustainable products.

This fits with our tradition of designing biodegradable and compostable bioplastics, as solutions for specific environmental problems associated with the end-of-life of the applications. These products are used in many different sectors, such as large-scale retail distribution, separate waste collection, catering, agriculture and packaging.

One of the big issues for the plastics field is the lack of consumer clarity over different plastics types and their environmental credentials (or lack thereof). What exactly do we mean by 'bioplastics', 'biodegradable' plastics or even 'compostable' plastics?

Nowadays, the terms “biodegradable”, “biobased” and “compostable” as related to bioplastics are very common. But these are frequently misused and a source of misunderstanding. A plastic material is defined as a bioplastic if it is either biobased, biodegradable, or features both properties.

The term biobased means that the material or product is whole or in part derived from biomass like plants, trees or animals.

Biodegradability means a material’s capacity to be converted into carbon dioxide (CO2) through the action of micro-organisms, under the same process occurring in natural waste. The property of biodegradation does not depend on the resource basis of a material but is rather linked to its chemical structure.

A more specific declination of this property is the compostability; that is, the ability of an organic material, animal or vegetable, to decompose and turn into a mixture of substances, with the compost to be used as a “soil improver”. The European norm EN 13432 defines the characteristics that a material must own in order to be claimed as compostable and therefore recycled through composting of organic solid waste.

What innovations is Novamont currently working on in terms of new plastic materials?

We do not consider the product on its own, but as part of a production/consumption/disposal system, so our solutions are conceived and designed to provide unique and sustainable responses to specific environmental and social problems.

The use of renewable raw materials is one of the qualifying elements of Novamont’s biodegradable and compostable bioplastics and we are working to progressively increase the renewable content of our products. Moreover we continually improve the performance and environmental profile of our products in order to expand the range of possible applications.

With respect to CIRC-PACK, how is Novamont progressing with the important task of producing our new plastics from renewable materials - one of the key components of 'Demo Case A' in the project?

‘Demo Case A’ is focused on demonstrating the potential of bio-based material when applied in the packaging sector. So as we continuously optimise the process for obtaining bioplastic intermediates from waste cellulose, we are developing a range of suitable formulations for CIRCPACK’s selected applications. This means that different grades of biopolymers have been validated by partners for the final CIRC-PACK applications: film sealing for food trays, plastic boxes, bags, shampoo bottles, coffee capsules. The validation has covered the testing characteristics and functionality of the final products.

What do you think CIRC-PACK brings to the table in terms of European efforts to transition towards a circular economy for plastics? How will the project deliver this, and how will Novamont help?

The CIRC-PACK project will help to decouple plastic packaging products from fossil feedstocks and to reduce Europe’s dependence on fossil resources, providing new packaging solutions based on renewable sources with lower environmental impact and creating an effective after-use plastics economy.

Now, Demo Case A’s stated objective is “decoupling plastics from fossil feedstock by using alternative renewable feedstock”.  This means that Novamont is working to demonstrate a process for obtaining building blocks from AHP (Absorbent Hygiene Products) cellulose waste application into bioplastics. The success of this demonstration will develop new biodegradable and compostable materials for packaging (food and non-foodstuffs). This packaging allows for optimal organic waste management; reducing the environmental impact and contributing to the development of virtuous systems, with significant advantages throughout the entire production-consumption-disposal cycle.

What will the bioplastics industry deliver in 2019? What are your predictions?

Several countries worldwide are supporting the use of biodegradable and compostable bioplastics in order to increase sustainability and reduce the amount of waste which is disposed of in landfill, thus pushing their market.

In view of previous figures on Italian compostable bioplastics, the forecasts for the development of the production of compostable products show an overall growth of around 15% for the coming year. Overall the sector is very dynamic, with companies growing and investing in a skilled workforce, cutting-edge machinery and plants and innovative applications in several sectors. The evolution of the entire sector is pushed by the need to reduce plastic pollution in soil, rivers and seas, together with the ability of these products to solve the problems connected with the collection and valorisation of the organic fraction.

The interconnection between compostable bioplastics and organic waste collection schemes creates positive added value. These systems generate social, economic and environmental development. My wish is that in Europe, increasing adoption of these schemes will be promoted in the coming years. France and Wallonia have already started to adopt more compostable products.