President Biden’s vision for a biofuel future: Experts challenge pledge to slash 90% of US plastics
28 Mar 2023 --- US president Joe Biden has announced that his administration is setting a goal to replace 90% of plastics with biomaterials within the next 20 years. The statement was met with mixed reviews, with some calling it a step in the right direction while others speculate about the plan’s feasibility.
The US is preparing to release plans to make plastics, chemicals, fuels and other materials with biological processes. It is doing so to solidify its place in the global biomanufacturing race as industries are falling behind Europe and China.
John Beard, CEO of Port Arthur Community Action Network, tells PackagingInsights that he holds skepticism surrounding the announcement. “Biden has made claims of environmental leadership before but fell short of delivering true and needed action,” he says.
On the other hand, Stephen Croskrey, CEO of Danimer Scientific, tells us that “this announcement feels like a natural starting point for an important conversation about what can be accomplished with the private sector and all levels of government working together.”
A bold and ambitious administration
The new biotechnology and biomanufacturing goals are prompted by a September executive order to boost the bioplastics market. This is a part of the government’s efforts to reduce carbon emissions, lower prices, strengthen supply chains and promote energy security.
“While it is encouraging to see the Biden administration take initial steps to tackle the plastic pollution crisis, they missed the mark. This plan does not begin to match the scale of the problem,” criticizes Kate Melges, Greenpeace USA’s plastics project lead.
The goal expected to have the biggest impact on the packaging industry is using living organisms to make at least 30% of chemicals and be able to displace more than 90% of plastics within the next two decades.
“These are bold, ambitious objectives that we feel are a step in the right direction. If implemented, they could set the stage for further changes that, over time, could make a real dent in the amount of petrochemical-based plastic produced and discarded into the environment,” says Croskrey.
Beard adds that the real focus should be whether the packaging industry can ramp down plastics use while ramping up the use of degradable materials.
“While I’m hopeful for a major shift, I expect this ‘transition’ won’t be sufficient to reduce plastics production and use, nor reduce feedstocks built up from decades of expanded capacity.”
“Either we consumers will pay, or our taxes used to offset the loss of markets; or, they’ll ship production elsewhere,” he continues.
Redirecting from plastics
According to recent research, bio-based processes can generate US$4 trillion in annual US economic impact over the next 10 to 20 years.
However, the White House is turning inward as a cause of its current network of facilities not meeting demand and lagging behind markets overseas. This has been driving some companies to conduct scale-up efforts abroad, according to a Department of Energy report.
“By focusing on bioplastics and recycling, the administration is not addressing the root cause of the plastic pollution problem. We need to stop producing single-use plastics and switch to refill and reuse systems, not pursue false solutions like recycling and materials substitution,” asserts Melges.
“He [Biden] has allowed the petrochemical industry to get ahead of the game and will now have to follow their lead rather than establish the path forward himself,” Beard adds.
On the other hand, Danimer Scientific’s CEO sees the report as an opportunity to spur more companies to contemplate a shift to bio-based packaging materials as an environmentally sustainable solution.
“It is not only the right thing for our environment, but it’s also smart business, as the public becomes increasingly aware of the scope of the plastic waste crisis and will gravitate toward products with environmentally friendly packaging,” says Croskrey.
“The federal government has the opportunity to help drive this movement by incentivizing and mandating the adoption of sustainable materials, which continue to be more expensive than conventional petroleum-based plastics. As demand for bio-based materials ramps up, it will be crucial for the government to invest in building out capacity, particularly in fermentation infrastructure,” he asserts. .
“Proof is in the pudding”
The report says the goals in US biomanufacturing capacity would create jobs, secure the supply chain and help achieve climate goals.
“The big challenge is going to be getting American consumers and US-based businesses to change well-ingrained habits and make a conscious effort to support bio-based materials,” explains Croskrey.
The White House precautioned that they have set goals and not commitments. Greenpeace USA plastics project lead suggests that the White House divert its focus to the global plastic pollution treaty and away from bioplastics to tackle the environmental crisis it sees from plastics.
“The Biden administration has a huge opportunity to support a legally binding global treaty that caps plastic production and prioritizes reuse and refill. The decision President Biden makes on this critical issue will help define his legacy – as someone who helped put an end to this crisis, or someone who let it spiral further out of control.”
Beard calls the US’s goals a “proof is in the pudding” situation and will wait and see if the words will be backed by appropriate action.
“True leadership means making the hard decision, then supporting it with actions to make a true transition from fossil fuels to renewables, recyclables real. Biden and America have no room for error. The clock is ticking and either we phase out fossil fuel-derived plastics and their use or face irreversible environmental consequences,” Beard concludes.
By Sabine Waldeck
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