Healing the Planet: 6 European Companies Working on Plastic Alternatives

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Maya Raghunandan, science writer and Kolabtree freelancer, writes about six notable companies working on plastic alternatives in the EU.

Too much of anything is bad. Plastics are no exception. Bakelite, the first plastic produced in 1907 marked the beginning of the global plastics industry. What started out as a novel invention, adding comfort and convenience to our lives, plastic production exploded to  381 million tons in 2015 and went from being the solution to becoming the plague of modern world. Thanks to a growing public awareness, governments from countries around the world, encouraged on by the United nations,  are trying to decelerate the amount of plastic being released into the environment. Strategies range from banning single-use plastic products to emphasizing on recycling the existing plastic products.

Simultaneously, every entrepreneur in the sustainability sector wants to be ‘the pioneer’ that will provide a much-needed magic pill to our plastic problem. Innovators around the world are trying to nip the problem in its bud by providing convincing alternatives to plastic, in large enough quantities, but at an affordable price. The primary objective is to use non-plastic alternative products. 

In 2018, the European Union announced that it plans to invest €100 million from its Horizon 2020 research program to develop eco-friendly alternatives to plastic. This is part of a broader plan to “make all plastic packaging in Europe reusable or recyclable by 2030”. In fact, to encourage the innovators, the European Commission launched the 2019 edition of the European Social Innovation Competition in Ljubljana, Slovenia; this year’s theme is Challenging Plastic Waste. The semifinalists include a wide range of ideas ranging from eco-friendly laminations to thermal packaging material. While there are many such technology accelerators aiming to minimize the use of synthetic and/or petroleum derived products, here are some that are leading the way to successfully commercialize innovative plastic-free alternatives.

1. NOVAMONT S.p.A

Novamont, an Italian venture,  was created in 1990 with its roots in the Montedison School of Materials Science – that specializes in renewable raw materials – to integrate chemistry, agriculture and the environment. Novamont is a European pioneer and leader in the biopolymer sector. With their proprietary technologies, Novamont produces a range of materials sourced from starch, cellulose, vegetable oils and their combinations; these are sold under the trade name, Mater-Bi. Mater-Bi is characterized by its “biodegradability and compostability properties and its high content of renewable raw materials”.  Headquartered in Milan, Novamont is present in the U.K, Germany, France and the U.S.A and operates through its own distributors in Benelux, Scandinavia, China, Japan, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The applications of Novamont’s biopolymers are spread over multiple industries, such as, packaging, disposable tableware, farming, cosmetics etc. In fact, Novamont produced all the biodegradable tableware for the 2012 Olympic Games.

Recently teaming up with the British retail company, Co-op, Novamont aims to phase out and eliminate 60 million traditional single use plastic carrier bags, equal to 340 tons of plastic, with compostable carrier bags. Additionally, Novamont has existing partnerships with many big firms such as Lavazza, Eataly, Grom and Slow food.

Novamont is a benchmark for the circular economy, wherein, the renewable raw materials used to produce goods, get converted into a new resource at the end of their lifecycle. With about 1000 patented technologies, Novamont is expected to continue leading by example, and set more gold standards the sector of sustainable production.

2. AVANTIUM N.V

Based out of The Netherlands, Avantium is  leading the way in transitioning the chemical industry to renewable chemicals and polymers. Avantium’s YXY technology can convert plant-based sugars to PEF, a biopolymer that is safe, stable and 100% recyclable, with a rapid degradation in nature, to avoid future accumulation.

Avantium serves as a great example of commercializing unique plant-based, sustainable products, by partnering with big industrial companies.  They are currently partnering with Alpla, The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) and Danone to develop 100% bio-based PEF bottles. Moreover, Avantium has recently been awarded €1.3 million for its Dawn and Mekong Technologies from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation program ‘VEHICLE’. It is only a matter of time that more like-minded brands and plastic conversion companies join hands with Avantium challenge the status quo of today’s industrially manufactured materials.

3. SULAPAC

Sulapac is  Finnish company, founded, in 2016, by 2 biochemists. Sulapac aims to establish an eco-friendly substitute for single-use plastic packaging materials, without compromising on the quality and shelf-life of food and other products. They manufacture completely biodegradable and microplastic-free plastic-alternative with potential to outperform even other existing sustainable alternatives. Their materials, sourced from sustainably grown Nordic forests, are described to possess excellent biodegradation speed and barrier properties, albeit with lower carbon dioxide footprint.

Sulapac aims to “brings brands, manufacturers and people together in a circle of good”. True to this, they have already partnered with Naviter, a fast-growing family-owned company, that develops and produces innovative skin and hair care products in Helsinki. They are also spreading their wings into the food industry with Fazer, an international family-owned company offering quality food products. With a new product in the pipeline – marine biodegradable Sulapac straw – Sulapac is here to stay.  Armed with funding from the EU Horizon 2020, Sulapac hopes to “optimize the recipe and barrier coatings for high volume cosmetic and food industries, apply for required certificates, do customer pilots and create a licensing model”.

4. AMSilk GmBH

This German biotech company pioneered a technology supplying synthetic silk biopolymers for use in producing textiles, cosmetics, implants and medical devices. Their lightweight biopolymer, trademarked as Biosteel, is mechanically durable, chemical resistant and bio-compatible. This material is biochemically similar to silk from spider webs; albeit, no spiders are actually used in the manufacturing process. Biosteel is, in fact, created from recombinant spider silk, produced from engineered microorganisms in bioreactors. Biosteel is expected to bridge the gap between two mutually exclusive trends: the need for better  performing and light-weight products, and the increasing demand for eco-friendly synthetic fiber alternatives.

AMSilk’s shot to fame came from their partnership with the shoe manufacturing giant, Adidas, to produce the prototype biodegradable shoe, in 2016. Currently, AMSilk is also teaming up with Airbus to develop the first composite material made of bionic high-performance Biosteel fiber. Armed with a fantastic nature-identical silk product and A-level partnerships with Roche, Adidas, and now Airbus, AMSilk is now leading the industrial biomaterial revolution.

5. Bio-ON

“Bio-on: i.e., turn on BIO! ‘turn OFF pollution’!”

This Italian company’s name and vision is literally what their products are aiming to do. Based out of Bologna, Bio-ON is best known for producing Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA), a linear polyester resulting from bacterial fermentation of sugar. Their trademark material MINERV-PHA is endowed with optimal thermal properties and can be custom-made to meet a temperature range of -10°C to +180°C. Moreover, it is the first sugar-derived biopolymer with a dissolution rate of 10 days, when in normal river or sea water, sans any residues.

Just in April 2019, Bio-ON, in alliance with Unilever, announced the launch of MyKai, using bioplastic micro powders that replace the more traditional microbead products that otherwise pollute our oceans. Bio-ON also announced a new partnership with Kering Eyewear, as a part of global luxury group that develops an ensemble of luxury houses in fashion.  Bio-ON is all set with multiple collaboration in place to enter a multitude of industries in near future – ranging from food and beverage packaging,  automobiles, kids’ toys and electronics –  to name a few.

Last, but not the least, Bio-on researchers can now use nanotechnologies to create minerv BIOMEDS; this product will enter the field of biomedical and pharmaceutical applications as a theragnostic (therapeutic and diagnostic) material.

6. CARBIOS

Founded in 2011, the French green chemistry company, Carbios produces  environmentally friendly rigid, as well as flexible, films. As part of a joint venture with BpiFrance (SPI)  and the mulching films heavyweight, Limagrain Céréales Ingrédient, Carbios started CARBIOLICE to tackle the global plastic waste problem. Carbolice embed PLA- based (obtained from lactic acid, that can be produced by fermentation) based bioplastic. with enzymes that can decompose it into smaller fragment. These bioplastics can be degraded within a few months, instead of 100s of years in the environment.

From the beginning, Carbios has been financially supported by a leading European venture capital firm and labeled “Young Innovative Company” by Bpifrance. In early 2019, Carbios has teamed up with the Danish biotech giant, Novozymes, to commercialize biodegradable plastics. Carbiolice would potentially sell its enzymes to plastic manufacturers, to be incorporated into their PLA plastics, making them biodegradable. The plastic- embedded enzyme mixes can also be ‘programmed’ to degrade the plastic at desired rates. Currently, Carbios is heavily invested in enzymatic recycling of PET based packaging, and is actively working with multiple big names, including L’Oréal, Nestle and PepsiCo, to name a few.

While bioplastics may seem appealing as an alternative to perennially stable plastics, if not careful, the chemical used for growing the bioplastic raw material could counterbalance the benefits. However, with a well-thought-out streamlined process, the use of biological material to produce bioplastics, could lead to a significant reduction in the plastics’ impact on the planet. With a growing appetite for bioplastics in the circular economy models, we can expect to see significant improvements in the next decade.

All over the world, companies are working on plastic alternatives and bioplastics to develop innovative and safer products and packaging solutions. If you’re a startup looking to develop plastic-free products, get help from Kolabtree’s global pool of experts. Simply post your project for free and get quotes from experts.


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About Author

Maya Raghunandan obtained her Ph.D in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology from the University of Minnesota, Twin cities, USA. Currently, she is a cancer biology scientist at Université Catholique de Louvain, Brussels, Belgium. In her spare time, she writes about cool science discoveries in her jargon-free blog http://www.sciencesnippets.org/. Because, science doesn’t have to sound complicated. Instead, it must be comprehensible for everyone.

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