“When brands are looking for near-term impact, they need a bio-based technology that really works”
By Christophe Schilling, CEO, Genomatica.
The brands I speak with have well-crafted plans for advancing the sustainability of their products. These address choosing materials for recyclability, considering end-of-life reuse, energy consumption during production, packaging, and community-related issues, consistent with the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.
I was particularly energised by my conversations at the VERGE18 conference, where I was asked to be a discussion leader at the Circular Plastics Summit, co-led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (I encourage you to read their New Plastics Economy and Make Fashion Circular reports).
Increasingly, brands are seeing the opportunity to improve sustainability through increased use of renewably-sourced materials. This approach is part of a broader set of initiatives to increase circularity in a range of global material flows.
Although these approaches offer compelling benefits, making them happen can be challenging. In this article, I’d like to share some ideas for tangible, near-term actions that emerged from my recent discussions, as they apply to bio-based chemicals.
One key learning: close is better.
We’ve found that brands are more energised to act when key chemicals are “closer” to their end products, in the sense of making up a substantial portion of the end product. A great example is nylon, where the key chemical, caprolactam, is only one step away from conversion to nylon. Genomatica is developing technology for bio-based caprolactam, which is then made into 100% bio-based nylon-6 for apparel and carpet; we announced Aquafil as a partner in early 2018. Brands appreciate that moving to 100% bio-based nylon could allow them to have a major impact on the sustainability of their products and on their market differentiation.
To make that happen only one chemical needs to be made renewably. This announcement was followed by Project EFFECTIVE, which aims to commercialise better fibers and plastics and includes four major brands – H&M, Vaude, Carvico and Balsan. EFFECTIVE, supported by the EU’s Horizon2020 program, will use Genomatica’s caprolactam technology, as well as technology for the first bio-based chemical delivered by Genomatica for 1,4-butanediol (BDO), to enable higher renewable content in polyesters and polyurethanes.
Two more examples are instructive. First, Genomatica ( @Genomatica ) has also commercialised its Brontide™ bio-based butylene glycol. It’s certainly close to the customer, as it’s used directly in personal care and cosmetics products. As a result, Brontide has resonated with major brands that emphasise naturalness and purity. Second is Genomatica’s aforementioned BDO. At first glance, BDO is a few conversion realised they can quickly improve the sustainability of polymers used in common urethane foams (for example) by replacing just the BDO part with a bio-based version. That won’t take the product to 100%, but it allows for a fast improvement, through better understanding of where a product’s ingredients come from.
Another: it has to work.
When brands are looking for near-term impact, they need a bio-based technology that really works. That means it can be produced at commercial scale today with competitive economics. Tangible examples like bio-based BDO and Brontide deliver immediate opportunities and build confidence that the technology side of our industry can deliver further innovations. A recent example is Novamont’s production of compostable, biodegradable plastics in Italy using bio-based BDO. Their plant, with a 30,000 ton per year capacity, has helped revitalise the local economy, providing a market for farmers’ products plus the refurbishing of an older industrial facility, creating many jobs. Novamont has secured multiple well-known brands as customers, including UK retailer Co-op, which will replace 180 million bags. As brands see biotechnology deliver at scale, many want to learn what’s next.
What brands can do now.
To see how bio-based chemicals can fit your sustainability strategy we recommend the following:
• Increase internal awareness and understanding: This starts with a deeper understanding of where your key production inputs come from and how they are made. When coupled with greater exposure to what biotechnology can do, it helps prioritise what parts of your supply chain can be improved. Leverage outside expertise – invite biotech firms to share what they know and do.
• Involve your upstream chemical and material suppliers: Give them updated requirements tied to your sustainability objectives. Encourage them to have direct discussions with the biotechnology firms and biochemical producers that expand their options and fit your needs.
• Be clear about your shopping list and priorities: This allows biotechnology firms and chemical/material producers to provide feedback and look for areas of overlap.
• Send tangible market signals: If suppliers know you’re serious about moving to more sustainable ingredients and process technologies they’ll pay attention. This can tie directly to your Corporate Sustainability Reporting and objectives.
• Publicise and celebrate your choices: Let your customers know about your process for improving and milestones along the way. Press releases, speaking at conferences, blogs and tweets can all be effective.
• Get “inside the tent” with preferred partners: Some of your technology or supply chain partners can share more insights or have a greater impact on your results. Invest in ideation and exploration if needed. Close partnerships can help you influence their priorities or gain early access to advantaged ingredients.
I’ll be a speaker at World Bio Markets in April. Contact me directly at email@example.com if you’d like to discuss your company’s vision and needs sooner.
This feature first appeared in Issue #12 of the Bio-Based World Quarterly.
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