“Plastics have much good to offer to society, but after use the material value should be recovered or, when that is not possible, the energy value should be recovered. Uncontrolled release of plastics into the environment is not acceptable.”
Sabic stands for Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, a global company with one of the leading market positions for base chemicals such as methanol and ethylene glycol and high-performance plastics. In 2014, following increased demand from the packaging industry, Sabic launched its first portfolio of renewable polyethylenes (PE) and polypropylenes (PP) – the first petrochemical company to be able to produce renewable second-generation plastic.
Steven De Boer is the sustainability leader of polymers at the company and joins Dave Songer from Bio-Based World News for 5 Minutes With… to talk over why attacking plastic waste is a number one priority, the best advice he could give any aspiring start-ups and entrepreneurs and what it is about wood- and grass-based products that he likes so much.
Dave Songer (DS): Hi Steven, your role at Sabic, where you have been for 13 years, took on a sustainability direction in 2014 – how did that change things for you?
Steven De Boer (SDB): My background is in technology innovation. Over the years I came to understand that technology innovation should not be seen as a directionless process – it has a direction, and that direction is to solve sustainability challenges.
DS: What do you most like about being involved in sustainability?
SDB: Personally, I’m driven by the desire to understand science and nature and to use that knowledge to devise better processes and products. The sustainability angle gives me the opportunity to weigh in the consequences for the environment and for society when directing innovative developments.
DS: What has been your biggest professional challenge?
SDB: The biggest professional challenge is to get sustainability aspects considered with sufficiently high priority while working in a highly capital intensive industry, where decisions are based on solid business cases. That elementary tension is found at all levels, in global politics, in corporate strategy determination and in day-to-day business decisions. As manager, you should think in terms of business benefits so have a clear perspective on business aspects of sustainability actions.
DS: And what about sustainability in industry, what are the biggest challenges faced there?
SDB: The global chemical industry has a high CO2 footprint. But in my view, this footprint is justifiable because of the life cycle benefits of the products delivered to society. Still, the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is going up and industry has to contribute to carbon emission reduction wherever it can.
Another issue is the release at end-of-life of used products into the environment. Very much attention goes to plastic litter in the marine environment and that is an issue that must be tackled with the highest priority. Plastics have much good to offer to society, but after use the material value should be recovered or, when that is not possible, the energy value should be recovered. Uncontrolled release of plastics into the environment is not acceptable.
DS: What advice would you give an entrepreneur or a start-up looking to get going in the bio-based/sustainability industry?
SDB: They should take time to understand project economics. The bio-based world is full of technological opportunities, but only the economically viable opportunities have a chance to become reality. To me it seems that the will to do good, which drives many sustainability entrepreneurs, is often hindering them to accept that stepwise and small improvements ultimately have a bigger sustainability effect than a beautiful breakthrough technology that needs a generation to become reality.
DS: What project is Sabic currently working on, can you provide some details?
SDB: Sabic is using bio-based feedstocks in its crackers. Crackers are huge installations that are very critical on feedstocks and Sabic has identified sources that can be used in the specific set-up of its crackers. The food packaging industry is important for Sabic and it was concluded that we need second-generation feedstocks to avoid consumer reaction against food packed in food-derived plastics.
DS: You spoke at this year’s World Bio Markets – for those unable to attend can you explain what you covered?
SDB: The basic proposition was that bio-based feedstocks can be used to make chemical products in existing assets, and I addressed the question that comes next: what is the environmental impact of your bio-based scheme? Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) is the method of choice to make statements on that issue and I elaborated on which marketing statements can be made based on such an LCA analysis.
DS: What did you like most about the show?
SDB: I was impressed by the breath of the presentations and the audience. The whole value chain was present from chemical companies to brand owners to regulators and enthusiastic entrepreneurs. The dynamics of the bio-based community was very visible and the format of the event was also very well chosen, with many panel sessions, parallel tracks and plenary sessions. There was never a dull moment!
DS: What is your favourite bio-based/sustainable product and why?
SDB: I see much potential in the many kinds of wood and grass based biomass. Cellulose comes as perfect fibres and can be chemically modified to interesting products, but can also be used as an alternative sugar-to-chemicals source. Lignin could be the future source of aromatics; what is left over of the woody biomass could be used for green syngas production. We’ve known this for the last 200 years or so, but we have not unlocked the full potential of it yet.
My second-favourite product in the bio-based category are grains like barley and wheat, which are excellent feedstock sources for the many superb Belgian beers that are made!
DS: Thanks for taking part, Steven. Great to speak with you.
Read the last 5 minutes with… Jori Sihvonen, clean fuels officer at Transport & Environment.
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