Europe's 'best-kept secret' - its booming bio-economy

Europe's bio-economy is worth €2.2 trillion and employs 18.6 million people across the bloc, but a third of citizens are unaware it exists.

Algae bioreactor at AlgaeParc in Wageningen, Netherlands (Photo: Wageningen University)

"People are completely unaware that the EU is number one in the world [for bio-based products] and they don't know it is investing [in the bio-economy]," said Susanna Albertini, managing director of FVA, the Italian partner of the Bioways project, at the first stakeholder forum for the bio-based industries (BBI), which took place in Brussels on 7 December.

The BBI joint undertaking (BBIJU), running from 2014-2020, is a €3.7 billion public-private partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium. EU funding through Horizon 2020 has committed €975 million, with the rest coming from private investment.

So far, for every €1 put in by the EU, €2.59 has been invested by the private sector. Companies outside the EU are "getting interested" in what is going on here, said Philippe Mengel, executive director of the BBIJU. "The EU is back on the map as a place to invest in bio-based industry."

Since the BBIJU started in 2014, 45 new bio-based building blocks have been developed, exceeding the 2020 target of 30, as well as 90 new bio-based materials, against a target of 50.

Some 40 new bio-based consumer products have also been launched (the target was 30).

One innovation with considerable potential – not least given the focus on disposable plastics currently – is PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a bio-based alternative to PET (polyethylene terephthalate).

Around 70 percent of soft drinks are now packaged in PET plastic bottles, but PEF is the "first example of a polymer that's better than the petroleum-based ones", said Tom Van Aken, CEO of Avantium, which has developed the technology.

Stronger and thinner than its oil-based cousin, PEF also has improved barrier properties, said Van Aken, so the shelf-life of products can be extended.

Backed by a €25 million BBI subsidy, the company is part of a consortium developing a supply chain for FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid), the building block for PEF. Coca-Cola and Danone have also invested in Avantium's research.

700,000 jobs by 2030

For bio-based products, supply chains are critical.

New markets for agricultural and forestry products that are used in bio-based materials could reportedly create around 700,000 jobs by 2030, 80 percent of them rural, and much has been made of the potential in the bio-economy to tick a number of boxes in terms of economic and environmental sustainability.

PEF won't be available commercially before 2020, for example, but it is part of a global bio-plastics market that is set to grow 20 percent in the next five years, according to research published at the European bioplastics conference in Berlin in November.

Asia accounts for the largest share of production (50 percent). Europe represents 20 percent, but this should expand to 25 percent by 2022, thanks to the European Commission's commitment to transitioning to a circular economy model.

political deal on the circular economy package was struck on Monday (18 December).

A full review of the bio-economy strategy – which is seen as complementary to the circular economy – is planned for 2018, but a progress report published in November has already concluded that "there is great potential in a sustainable circular bio-economy".

With forward-thinking policies in place more investment should follow. As Europe's science and research commissioner Carlos Moedas has said: "Private money goes where stability is and where policies are predictable."

Much less predictable is how consumers view bio-based products. It was through a couple of new surveys with 500 people that Bioways – which was set up to raise awareness of bio-based products – discovered just how poor people's understanding is. "It's a mess," admitted Albertini.

To date, there has been little research on people's perceptions regarding bio-based products.

One of the few academic studies there are suggested a general state of confusion. Researchers in the Netherlands quizzed 89 people from five EU countries (a fair-sized study in qualitative terms) and concluded that a large number of them had questions, felt uncertain or had "mixed feelings" regarding the whole thing.

What does 'bio-based' mean?

"It [bio-based] is very strange. What does it mean?" admitted one of the consumers involved. Others suggested the whole thing could be a "marketing gimmick".

Concerns certainly intensified when the products in question are not 100 percent bio-based (one of the products given to them was Coca-Cola's part-plant bottle), or if they were produced outside the EU in countries (for example, a hemp-based T-shirt from China).

Companies will need to tread carefully when it comes to marketing their wares. Whether it's face creams enhanced by cellulose microfibrils, thistles for compostable packaging or waste milk proteins that are used to make dresses, the message from the study was to keep things simple and clear.

The term 'bio-based' doesn't help in that respect. But this shouldn't stop companies ramping up their efforts to communicate the environmental benefits and functionality of their products.

MEP Lambert van Nistelrooij, the Dutch Christian Democrat member of the Europe People's Party, said Europe's design ability isn't always matched by its selling techniques. He called on the sector to "be visible and be touchable."

Some already are. In a survey of 40 brands by bio-economy communications specialists, Sustainability Consult, published in November, 71 percent said they were already communicating their use of bio-based products externally.

Consumer demand for environmentally-friendly products was the key driver for their investment.

More and more member states have also adopted bio-economy strategies, which will help raise awareness at a national level. And the potential of the bio-based economy will no doubt continue to appeal to a commission that has made jobs, growth and investment a priority.

"I think 2018 is going to be a turning point for the bio-economy as it moves from niche to norm," said John Bell, bio-economy director at DG research and innovation.

At €2.2 trillion and 18.6 million jobs you could say the bio-economy has already arrived – but many people are still waiting for the bang.

By: euobserver