“At the moment biobased is seen as a niche alternative. It’s well-respected and is seen to be developing in the right way, but it hasn’t achieved the market penetration to be considered a genuine competitor to the conventional industry – yet. For me, it’s all about reaching that ‘tipping point’. Many stars must align for this to happen, but we’re quite positive that they will in due course”. To say this – in this exclusive interview with Il Bioeconomista – is Henri Colens, Public Affairs Manager, Renewable Chemicals, at Braskem Europe, the European subsidiary of the Brazilian petrochemical giant. With Colens we talk about bioeconomy and circular economy. “The bioeconomy – he says – is a way of harnessing the power of nature in order to create more sustainable products and processes. We all need to work harder on raising public awareness, so that citizens understand what we are doing and the potential of the bioeconomy.”
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Braskem is the largest petrochemical producer in the Americas and the world’s leading biopolymer producer. What is the bioeconomy for your company?
The bioeconomy is a way of harnessing the power of nature in order to create more sustainable products and processes. The company felt that developing a plant-based alternative to fossil-based polyethylene would be a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, step to take. We analysed the supply chain carefully and did all we could to achieve year-on-year progress in sustainability. That’s why we set up our own code of conduct which looks at a variety of environmental and social factors for the supply of bioethanol, made from sugarcane. We also placed great emphasis on certification, so that the supply chain was independently audited. We are conducting research into new technologies to continually improve the performance of our plant and the bio-chemicals and bioplastics that we can produce.
So the bioeconomy is a chain, which connects our farmers and rural workers in Brazil with consumers all over the world. It should have a positive impact on our ability to live in harmony with our environment. But you can never stand still – it’s very important to continually strive to improve.
And what is the circular economy?
The circular economy is a very interesting concept, which is capturing the imagination of citizens, legislators and business leaders all over the world. For Braskem, it’s both a challenge and an opportunity: it will no doubt lead to new legal obligations (particularly for our clients), but it is also a system which should suit our material. The recycling of plastic depends on many things, and we can all see that it is not working optimally at the moment. I think it’s very important that we find a way to ensure that all end-of-life materials are not wasted, that they do not end up in landfill, and that recyclates become a valuable commodity by gaining the trust of brand owners and citizens. We believe that an important pillar of the circular economy should be not only the better use of materials, but the use of better materials – hence why we are advocating incentives for biobased chemicals and products within the European Circular Economy Package. It’s surely time to give biobased products the push they deserve.
What are the main projects of Braskem in the bioeconomy?
Just as in the production of renewable polyethylene, our mantra is sustainable sourcing. I’m Green™ PE is a fully biobased plastic. The material, which is also drop-in, durable and recyclable, is part of a range of materials and chemicals which we are looking to develop.
Late last year we signed an agreement with Genomatica, a U.S. biotechnology company, to jointly develop a new technology for the production of butadiene from renewable feedstock. Through this partnership we are aiming to secure our leadership role in this sector.
Braskem’s objective with green butadiene is to primarily serve the synthetic rubber market, whose demand is currently met by naphtha-based butadiene, of which the company is already the world’s third-largest producer. With the expectation of a recovery in global economic growth over the coming years, our forecast calls for growing demand for butadiene based elastomers by tire manufacturers, who are the largest consumers of butadiene.
We also joined forces with Amyris and Michelin in 2014 to collaborate on the development of renewable isoprene. Under the terms of the agreement we will work together to develop a technology to use plant sugars, such as those found in Brazilian sugarcane, with the end goal of producing renewable rubber applications.
European companies complain about the presence of a regulatory and financial system in the EU that penalizes them in the international competition in the bioeconomy. What is the point of view of a Brazilian company? Is it possible to invest in the bioeconomy in Europe? What are the main differences with America and Asia?
There are no financial or regulatory incentives in Brazil to invest in industrial biotechnology. Brazil grows a huge amount of sugarcane (and could easily grow more) and is the world’s second largest producer of bioethanol (behind the USA). It has not needed massive state investment to get this far, although it comes off the back of a regulated and incentivised biofuel industry. But Brazil is a special case, given its vast natural resources.
Europe has adopted some protectionist measures, particularly with regard to its bioethanol import duty, but this is not the main problem it has. The investment which is often needed to scale-up production is very difficult to obtain. Many companies thrive when it comes to R&D in Europe, but production is often moved elsewhere. Access to feedstock is another problem. Europe is just waking up to the potential of its bioeconomy. We have high-quality sustainable forests in the north, fertile grasslands in the East, and world class intensive agriculture in the South and West. Added to this, we have some of the best transport infrastructure in the World. And yet we are failing to develop this vast potential because of legislative and trade barriers that we have built for ourselves. We need to look at this, and find solutions that can benefit the bioeconomy. So, in summary, the main difference is in attitude. Whilst the USA and China invest heavily and countries like Japan make great strides towards harnessing the full potential of their bioeconomies, Europe has a tendency to take things at a slower pace. Our sector must do more to enthuse legislators so that they act to unlock the potential of this highly innovative sector.
As far as you’re concerned, how important is the presence of a National strategy to support the development of bioeconomy?
In my opinion this is incredibly important. Member States which are consciously striving to support the bioeconomy will reap the benefits. But it’s also vital that the European Union also makes good on its promises to foster the right conditions for growth in this area. The EU could do more to erase mechanisms that hinder market access, and it should scale up the development of funding for innovative biotechnology processes and transfer of knowledge in this area. Lastly, we all need to work harder on raising public awareness, so that citizens understand what we are doing and the potential of the bioeconomy.
The USA and China are investing heavily to support the development of their natural resources, and we must do the same if we are not to be left behind. However, to my mind, there are several important factors that must be considered when developing a national or pan-European strategy. Firstly, while the agricultural, environmental and social benefits may be huge, it is clear that the scale-up of the bioeconomy must be achieved sustainably. We must develop standards that ensure responsible production. Secondly, European Member States must begin to build a trusted and forward-looking strategy to enhance the markets and competitiveness of the biomass sector. We are crying out for concrete measures which do this: how long have we been waiting for the development of an EU Green Public Procurement framework, for example? All in all, much needs to be done.
Is the future of the petrochemical industry really bio-based?
Yes, I believe it’s the future, but we need help, otherwise it will be the distant future! At the moment biobased is seen as a niche alternative. It’s well-respected and is seen to be developing in the right way, but it hasn’t achieved the market penetration to be considered a genuine competitor to the conventional industry – yet. For me, it’s all about reaching that ‘tipping point’. Many stars must align for this to happen, but we’re quite positive that they will in due course.
But, let’s be honest: we need biobased products. We cannot go on consuming in the same way. We have been taking our planet and its resources for granted for far too long. Anything that has the potential to change that is worth exploring. For example: packaging in Europe uses around 15 million tonnes of plastic per year. Currently only a tiny fraction is biobased. If we could begin to build that up (to 5-10% in the next 10 years is realistically achievable) we will be significantly reducing the carbon footprint of those products and saving colossal amounts of CO2. Tell me that’s not worth doing.