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Algae bioreactor at AlgaeParc in Wageningen, Netherlands.
Algae bioreactor at AlgaeParc in Wageningen, Netherlands.

Europe’s Bio-Economy Booming

New markets for agricultural and forestry products that are used in bio-based materials could reportedly create around 700,000 jobs by 2030, 80% of them rural

Europe’s Bio-Economy Booming

Europe's bio-economy is worth €2.2 trillion ($2.61 trillion) and employs 18.6 million people across the bloc, but a third of citizens are unaware it exists.
"People are completely unaware that the EU is number one in the world (for bio-based products) and they don't know it is investing (in the bio-economy)," said Susanna Albertini, managing director of FVA, the Italian partner of the Bioways project, at the first stakeholder forum for the bio-based industries, which took place in Brussels on December 7, EUObserver reported.
The BBI joint undertaking, running from 2014-2020, is a €3.7 billion public-private partnership between the EU and the Bio-based Industries Consortium. EU funding through Horizon 2020 has committed €975 million, with the rest coming from private investment.
So far, for every €1 put in by the EU, €2.59 has been invested by the private sector. Companies outside the EU are "getting interested" in what is going on here, said Philippe Mengel, executive director of the BBIJU. "The EU is back on the map as a place to invest in bio-based industry."
Since the BBIJU started in 2014, 45 new bio-based building blocks have been developed, exceeding the 2020 target of 30, as well as 90 new bio-based materials, against a target of 50. Some 40 new bio-based consumer products have also been launched (the target was 30).
One innovation with considerable potential—not least given the focus on disposable plastics currently—is PEF (polyethylene furanoate), a bio-based alternative to PET (polyethylene terephthalate).
Around 70% of soft drinks are now packaged in PET plastic bottles, but PEF is the "first example of a polymer that's better than the petroleum-based ones", said Tom Van Aken, CEO of Avantium, which has developed the technology.
Stronger and thinner than its oil-based cousin, PEF also has improved barrier properties, said Van Aken, so the shelf-life of products can be extended.
Backed by a €25 million BBI subsidy, the company is part of a consortium developing a supply chain for FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid), the building block for PEF.

700,000 Jobs by 2030
For bio-based products, supply chains are critical. New markets for agricultural and forestry products that are used in bio-based materials could reportedly create around 700,000 jobs by 2030, 80% of them rural, and much has been made of the potential in the bio-economy to tick a number of boxes in terms of economic and environmental sustainability.
PEF won't be available commercially before 2020, for example, but it is part of a global bio-plastics market that is set to grow 20% in the next five years, according to research published at the European bioplastics conference in Berlin in November.
Asia accounts for the largest share of production (50%). Europe represents 20%, but this should expand to 25% by 2022, thanks to the European Commission's commitment to transitioning to a circular economy model. A political deal on the circular economy package was struck on Monday (December 18).
A full review of the bio-economy strategy—which is seen as complementary to the circular economy—is planned for 2018, but a progress report published in November has already concluded that "there is great potential in a sustainable circular bio-economy".

Treading Carefully
With forward-thinking policies in place more investment should follow. As Europe's science and research commissioner Carlos Moedas has said: "Private money goes where stability is and where policies are predictable."
Much less predictable is how consumers view bio-based products. It was through a couple of new surveys with 500 people that Bioways—which was set up to raise awareness of bio-based products—discovered just how poor people's understanding is. "It's a mess," admitted Albertini.
"It [bio-based] is very strange. What does it mean?" admitted one of the consumers involved. Others suggested the whole thing could be a "marketing gimmick".
Concerns certainly intensified when the products in question are not 100% bio-based (like a soft drink), or if they were produced outside the EU in countries (for example, a hemp-based T-shirt from China).
Companies will need to tread carefully when it comes to marketing their wares. Whether it's face creams enhanced by cellulose microfibrils, thistles for compostable packaging or waste milk proteins that are used to make dresses, the message from the study was to keep things simple and clear.
The term 'bio-based' doesn't help in that respect. But this shouldn't stop companies ramping up their efforts to communicate the environmental benefits and functionality of their products.

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