Chemical industry: Towards the bioeconomy

Chemical industry

Aarthi JanakiRaman, Research Director, Chemicals and Advanced Materials at TechVision, Frost & Sullivan, argues that the chemical industry is one of the linchpins in Europe’s transition to a bioeconomy

Climate change is a growing concern that is gaining importance across the globe. Environmental pollution and its degradation are major threats that need to be addressed in ensuring the quality of life of future generations. Countries across the world have established policies and strategies that can help in mitigating climate change effects and Europe is one of the forerunners in implementing processes and protocols to build a sustainable and resilient bio-based economy (bioeconomy), which is integral to establish a circular economy.

The European Commission (EC) through its European Green Deal (EGD), the new EU Recovery Plan and Bio- based Industries Joint Undertaking (BBI JU) to name a select few programmes have set in motion various strategies and action plans to transition the EU (European Union) to a viable bioeconomy. Policy initiatives, coupled with action plan are intended to achieve carbon neutrality, resource efficiency and help in the transition to an environmentally sustainable Europe by the year 2050.

The chemical industry in Europe’s bio-based economy

The bio-based economy strategy lays emphasis on a low emissions economy, sustainable and judicious use of biological resources for industrial and consumer applications while encouraging biodiversity. This calls for an integrated approach from various stakeholders across industries, governmental and non-profit agencies and academia and research institutes and not to mention, end consumers and citizens alike. Various stakeholders across industries have already set in motion their action plans to support the transition to a biobased economy and the chemical industry is one of such industries that have multiple companies setting strategies towards a low carbon economy and working towards a sustainable portfolio.

A vital role in Europe’s bio-based economy is from bio-based chemicals and materials. While the traditional definition signifies it as chemical products that are wholly or partly derived from materials of biological origin, the definition can also be extended to include recycled materials that are obtained from end–of-life products and waste streams. A wide range of bio- based or sustainable materials and chemicals are of focus that can potentially replace their traditional, fossil-fuel based counterparts. Many bio-based materials and chemicals are already in use, for example, bio-based and recycled polymers have gained significant traction in the packaging sector, especially for F&B, FMCG and personal care applications.

Despite well-established adoption potential and applicability in various industries, the adoption of various bio-based alternatives such as inks, catalysts, solvents and adhesives are still very limited. The availability of renewable feedstock allows the chemical industry to have a wider choice of inputs, thereby, increasing the range of bio-based platform materials and chemicals available for product development; however, the use of these feedstocks often warrants a modification in the already well-established production processes and synthesis routes that are often cost- intensive. This, in turn, has the potential to delay the transition towards a circular model. Green chemistry principles that translate to efficient bio-based production technologies is still in its nascent stages of adoption.

As end products obtained from various chemicals are indigenous to our daily lives, it’s of utmost importance to ensure that the role of the chemical industry in Europe’s bioeconomy is well-defined and steps are taken to ensure the development and adoption of bio-based/recycled feedstocks, chemicals and end-products.

Key action points

While things for a transition to a circular biobased economy are already in motion, emphasis is to be on creating an ecosystem with an inclusive approach, wherein all participants work towards a unified goal. The current scenario has stakeholders with multiple goals and individual agendas working towards developing a sustainable economy. It is also important to ensure that the desired biobased economy has tangible benefits to all stakeholders across the value chain, including end consumers, considering the complexity of the chemical industry value chain.

New business models aimed at integrating value chains, creating local bases and value networks to support sustainability in all areas will help develop a more self-sufficient and resilient value chain; collaborative approaches that can integrate various stakeholders across the value chain and sharing of benefits can boost stakeholder participation and help in making the bioeconomy a top priority.

It is evident that technology developments are to be the key for Europe’s successful biobased economy. This requires continuous focus on research and innovation wherein technology enablers are easily transferrable for industrial adoption and has clearly defined societal benefits. Focused research efforts towards LCA of bio-based chemicals and materials can also go a long way in establishing their use in various end-use applications.

Public-private partnerships not restricted only to academia-industry collaborations play a critical role in ensuring real-time pilot testing and commercial adoption of technology developments, not limited to adoption only to the chemical industry.

The last five years have seen the successful conduct of pilot plants established for the recycling and upcycling of waste, especially plastics. However, a large number of technology developers and innovators still find it challenging to obtain sufficient funding for real-time testing, trials and commercialisation. Better channel access to funding support and investment can help to reduce the time taken for the commercialisation of technology developments and innovations. Regulations that can help in the easier valorization of waste streams and by-products can help in increasing the availability of biobased chemicals and feedstock.

Clear regulatory guidelines, standards and definitions are needed to define end-of-waste, recycled and upcycled materials and chemicals and their by- products; this can increase the adoption of these materials and chemicals for various end-use applications.

Educational campaigns that can disseminate messages to end consumers can actively help in ensuring participation, especially those related to recycling, upcycling and the adoption of sustainable resources to develop a circular approach.

The role of the chemical industry in Europe’s bioeconomy can’t be denied. Policy reforms and incentives, including tax credits, timely funding and investment efforts (including grants, loans, tax credits, etc.) can accelerate the industry’s inclination, transition and efforts towards sustainability and circularity and can go a long way in realising the chemical industry’s potential in building a sustainable and resilient bioeconomy in Europe.

Contributor Profile

Research Director, Chemicals and Advanced Materials
TechVision, Frost & Sullivan
Phone: +91 44 6681 4102
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