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Biobased Plastics, the Fall of Prometheus and Brand Owner Tips

Axel Barrett, Chief-Editor of BioplasticsNews.com explores the key questions around bioplastics by defining what bioplastic is, telling the story and the environment around bioplastics and shares his tips for brand owners considering using them.

The word “bioplastics” refers to two categories of plastics; (1) Biobased or biosourced plastics; and / or (2) Biodegradable or compostable plastics.

(1) Biobased refers to the sourcing of the feedstock, the origin of the carbon; and (2) Biodegradable and compostable refers to the end-of-life.

Definitions are important as they involve commercial interests. Legal definitions are not always aligned with etymology and are sometimes melted to suit commercial interests. The devil is in the detail.

Biobased / Biosourced

You need carbon to make plastics and historically we’ve been using carbon originating from crude oil. These are commonly referred to as “fossil-based plastics”.

However, it’s possible to use non-fossil based feedstock to make plastic. They’re called bio-based, bio-sourced or biomass feedstock. You can find a complete list of bio-based feedstock to produce bioplastics on the following page Bioplastics Feedstock.

A small quantity of fossil-based plastics may be added to bio-based plastics to make it biodegradable or compostable. Some purists claim bio-based plastics should be made with 100 % bio-based feedstock while some suppliers of fossil-based (compostable) plastics claim 60 % bio-based feedstock is enough to be branded “bio-based”.

Within the bio-based feedstock, you need to differentiate between (1) vegan and (2) animal origin feedstock

(1) Vegan or plant-based refers to plants, crops and non-animal feedstock; we could say that it refers to “flora”;

(2) Animal content refers to animal fats, milk waste, chitin, slaughterhouses leftovers, cooking oils, animal fats, etc. We could say that it refers to “fauna”.

There may be sensitivities regarding the use of animal content in the manufacture of plastics. Imagine how a vegetarian would feel if you told him that his / her packaging was made with animal fats; or tell a muslim that his packaging was made with carbon from porcine origin.

The industry came up with the term “renewable” feedstock to include vegan plastic, animal-based content and recycled plastics.

Topics such as GMO, feedstock generation and intensive agriculture may be important when it comes to selecting “responsible” bio-based feedstock.

The most important feedstock generations are the “1st and 2nd”. We refer to the first generation when crops are “explicitly” grown to produce plastics, chemicals or fuels. We refer to 2nd generation when biomass waste and byproducts are used to produce plastics, chemicals or fuels.

1st generation feedstock are more efficient in terms of production output but may be more sensitive regarding the fuel / plastic vs. food debate).

A popular belief is that bio-based plastics have a lower carbon footprint than fossil-based plastics. You need to consider many items to define the accurate carbon footprint including feedstock generation, transportation and processing, supply and value chain, distribution, consumption and end-of life processing.

Danimer Scientific and the Fall of Prometheus

This month’s most important news came from a company called Danimer Scientific.

Danimer Scientific is a US bioplastic company producing PHA, a polymer that is “naturally” produced by bacteria. A lot of expectations and hope have been placed on PHA. Some people believe it may be a solution to the plastic crisis.

However, Wall Street thinks differently!

Danimer Scientific announced they were going on the stock market in 2020. The shares were introduced on the NYSE on 30th of December 2020 and reached a value of 64.29 $ on the 6th of February 2021. In the meantime, the shares’ value have collapsed and even reached levels as low as 16 $.

Why?
A New York based investment management firm called “Spruce Point Capital Management” published a devastating report on Danimer, implying that the company may have committed “securities fraud” and was a “house of cards”.

One of the most important accusations is that the biodegradability claims of Danimer Scientific PHA marketed under the brand name “Nodax” are overrated.

Coincidentally, the same happened to an Italian PHA producer called Bio-on. Bio-on was listed on the Italian stock exchange (AIM) and was thriving until a New York based asset management firm called “Quintessential Capital Management” released a devastating report claiming Bio-on was a house of cards. The share value collapsed and the company was placed under judicial administration.

It gets more interesting. Bio-on has was meant to be auctioned by the Italian justice on May 5th 2021. The press release of the Spruce Point Capital Management report was issued on May 4th; a day before the Bio-on auction sale. This may have scared off potential buyers of Bio-on. Was it a coincidence? Is coincidence even a word on the Wall Street Lexicon?

In the meantime, a class action was filled against Danimer Scientific in a New York District court. More to follow on this.

The story of PHA reminds me of the Greek mythological figure called “Prometheus”. Prometheus stole fire from the Gods to give it to humans. Zeus sentenced Prometheus to eternal torment for his transgression. He was bound to a rock, and an eagle—the emblem of Zeus —was sent to eat his liver. His liver would grow back overnight, only to be eaten again the next day.

Tips for Brand Owners

Consider the earth, ecosystems and communities as an asset. The covid crisis taught us that it has disastrous consequences for business if we disrupt communities and ecosystems.

Try to be a force of good.

Don’t believe everything your suppliers tell you! Don’t believe labels and certifications blindly. Do your own research. Dare to ask questions and to challenge conventions!

Educate yourself on certain topics as much as possible. You owe it to yourself, your company and our planet!

And don’t forget to use your common sense !

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