Plants to plastics: PEF biopolymer can be material of the future, says Avantium CEO
01 Apr 2021 --- As a slew of policy changes addressing environmental sustainability issues like climate change and plastic pollution are implemented, fresh avenues for chemical innovation are opening up in the packaging industry.
Measures such as the EU Plastics Tax and the US Break Free from Plastic Pollution Act are becoming realities, and players in the renewable polymer sector are eyeing an increasingly lucrative future.
PackagingInsights sits down with Tom van Aken, CEO of Avantium, a Netherlands-based renewable chemicals company, to discuss this emerging market and his company’s vision for “radical solutions” in the circular economy.
While many companies have embraced circularity to achieve sustainability targets, it is insufficient to address carbon emissions and plastic accumulation in natural systems, says van Aken.
“Simply said: we need more radical solutions to decouple plastic materials from fossil feedstock.”
Van Aken asserts that Avantium sees the future of plastics moving in the same direction as the automotive industry, which introduced hybrid vehicles five years ago as a way to decarbonize transportation.
It was an important but small step toward environmental sustainability, he notes, and one that quickly progressed toward adopting electronic vehicles free from fossil fuels.
The chemical industry is also adopting some of these transitioning solutions, observes van Aken.
“Companies are discovering new and innovative ways to produce materials from sustainable sources, to drive fossil-based carbon out of the industry, and transition to 100 percent recyclable solutions – the plastics of the future.”
PEF to replace PET?
Avantium’s flagship biopolymer is polyethylene furanoate (PEF), which the company believes can replace PET as regulations against fossil fuel-based plastics become more stringent.
“We believe that PEF – a 100 percent recyclable, plant-based and high-performance polymer – is the plastic material of the future,” says van Aken.
“It helps meet the growing demand for circular and renewable products that tackle major environmental issues, such as climate change and plastic accumulation.”
One of the key challenges the industry faces in bringing PEF to the market, says van Aken, is cost. He explains that to achieve the price points that are competitive to PET, industry must reach a much higher production scale.
“This is why we have decided to license our technology instead. Aside from being the most capital-efficient way to commercialize our technologies, we believe it is also the fastest way to bring our sustainable solutions to market and achieve the economies of scale to enable mass adoption of PEF.”
Debuting on the market
For the market introduction, Avantium is focusing on applications that can benefit from the unique, superior properties of PEF rather than highly commoditized applications.
PEF is set to feature first in high-barrier films and specialty bottles, where PET or other polymers may not have the properties to be the material of choice.
“These are also applications where PEF can enable fewer complex solutions that only need a single material, rather than needing several different plastics to achieve the required performance.”
Once PEF production is at a larger scale, the material’s cost will reduce, and more applications for PEF will emerge, van Aken continues.
“The quicker we can make this technology more widely available, the sooner the world can benefit from this renewable, circular solution.”
The race to commercialization
Avantium aims to commercialize its proprietary “plants-to-plastics” technology to produce 2,5-Furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA) – the main building block of PEF.
Avantium has proven the technology in a pilot plant and plans to open the world’s first commercial FDCA plant in 2023.
“We’ve just announced progress toward a final investment decision for the construction of our flagship FDCA plant with two additional, conditional offtake agreements for the supply of PEF resin, making it a total of four contracts with global partners across the PEF value chain.”
These partners include Japan-based specialty chemical company Toyobo, US-based specialty polyester film producer Terphane, Netherlands-based beverage bottling company Refresco and an undisclosed major global food and beverage brand owner.
“In addition to this, we signed a collaboration agreement with the Carlsberg Group to jointly develop several PEF applications, including the Green Fibre Bottle, with the goal to validate the circularity of the applications.”
Avantium expects this to lead to additional demand for FDCA from its flagship plant.
“These announcements represent a significant milestone for major brands and the plastics industry, as it demonstrates a clear desire to shift toward sustainable solutions and to enable a circular economy,” outlines van Aken.
With the rollout of plastics taxes in the EU, UK and other countries, along with bans on single-use plastics already in the pipeline for many regions, van Aken says excellent progress is being made.
“However, more needs to be done. Companies can also play an important role in policymaking by supporting, advocating and championing more aggressive measures that eliminate fossil-based resources.”
The scale of the challenge demands industry players to actively engage with a broad range of stakeholders, including policymakers, government associations, major brands and the chemical industry, he says.
“By working with governments and industry associations through positive lobbying, we can help inform the debate around climate change and shape policies leading to a sustainable future.”
By Louis Gore-Langton
To contact our editorial team please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
Subscribe now to receive the latest news directly into your inbox.