A distributor and producer of bioplastic raw materials, NaturePlast currently has Europe’s largest catalog of bio-sourced and biodegradable plastics. We spoke with the company’s CEO, Thomas Lefevre.
Bioplastics invite both skepticism and enthusiasm, especially their technical-economic performance.
Bio-sourced plastics have the same qualities as their petroleum-based equivalents. We could replace 80% of conventional plastics with bioplastics without investing in new equipment, because 90% of these biomaterials can be transformed using conventional equipment. That being said, the term bioplastic covers a large array of materials, and each has its specifications. We hear that biodegradable plastic is unable to guarantee a barrier function. That’s true for the time being, but let’s not conflate things: hasty conclusions have been made about tests carried out on some biomaterials, without bothering to ask if the right bioplastic was being used for the right application.
Yet bioplastics remain more expensive to produce than conventional plastics.
That’s true, but petroleum-based plastic has an industrial maturity of over a half-century. The more bioplastics volumes increase, the more production costs will decrease. Let time take its course. In any case, do we really have a choice? Fossil resources are growing scarce and recycling is only a transitional solution: at present and on an industrial scale, plastic can only be recycled three to five times before its technical qualities degrade. The need to work reliably and with renewable materials is simply common sense.
The absence of a dedicated recycling channel is also problematic.
Bio-sourced plastics are recyclable through classic channels, with a limitation common to all thermoplastics: each plastic can only be recycled with plastics of the same kind (a bio PP with a PP, for example). This gets to the very heart of the recycling question: for there to be a dedicated channel, there has to be sufficient volumes. For example, in France, ABS mascaras are not recycled, and only PP, PET, and PE packaging is. The case of biodegradable bioplastics is different, and it reveals incoherence in the system: technically, these biodegradables could integrate industrial composting channels, but that’s forbidden in France, which is an aberration.
Lifecycle analyses on bioplastics also raise the question of potential pollution transfer.
Water consumption and soil eutrophication, which all crops induce, are indeed limits we are trying to overcome by working on alternative resources: European projects are underway which could make it possible in the long term to produce bioplastics from wastewater or green waste from the food industry (project Deep Purple). The aim is to find the raw materials with the lowest impact: resources that don’t compete with food crops and that can be mobilized locally. From this perspective, reusing waste is the best possible option.
NaturePlast has a line of biocomposites that integrate byproducts from each channel: how has this been received by luxury markets?
We’ve been working closely with the luxury industry for years, and about a year ago, the market kicked into gear: today it is the leading sector in terms of investment in and development of large-scale projects. Cosmetics really started things off with large projects for primary packaging. The disruptive nature of the co-products approach won over and more recently textile have all gotten onboard. Now we have to determine what is really expected of the materials: would it be possible, or even desirable, to refocus on use instead of aiming for super-performance? It is entirely possible to lower specification requirements while remaining strictly within safety limits. Even conventional plastics are moving in this direction: in the future, we should see single-layers replacing multilayers (non-recyclables).
This article was originally published in our Formes de Luxe sister publication