Bio-based materials already create great benefits to customers as well as climate benefits. However, there is great development potential through increased substitution and new solutions, not least in large volume areas such as packaging, textiles and composites. The new materials and products that are being developed have to be functional, recyclable and they must have a conscious environmental impact throughout the whole life cycle.
Trade in goods is increasing at a furious pace all over the world, creating a growing demand for packaging in which those goods can be delivered. In many ways, packaging is a key part of the value chain for both consumer products and industrial products. How the goods are delivered is of great importance for the product as a whole, both in terms of sustainability and resource efficiency, but also from a marketing perspective. One challenge will be designing the packaging materials and packaging solutions of the future, in order to offer the right functionality in combination with good climate and environmental performance.
Plastic packaging is often criticized due to being seen as one of the major sources of littering in nature. Today, around 40 percent of all plastic used in the world goes to packaging. There are many advantages to plastic materials – the price, its barrier properties and moldability – however, they are made from non-renewable raw materials, they release carbon dioxide during combustion and they have a long degradation time in nature.
From this starting point, there is broad agreement in society about reducing the use of fossil-based plastic. One clear example is the new EU legislation that, among other things, increases demands for reductions in the use of so-called single-use plastics. Recently, the EU also supplemented the directives on packaging and packaging waste with a legislative proposal emphasizing further reduction of landfill, and the need for material recycling.
This creates new incentives both for trade operators, and for producers of packaging and packaging materials. One example is the food retailer ICA, which aims to have packaging in stores made only from bio-based or recycled raw materials, by 2030. Taking this kind of stance focuses attention on fibre based and recyclable materials and new combinations of materials, among other things. In turn, this increases the momentum of manufacturers of plastic raw materials to replace fossil building blocks with renewable ones. Going forward, development is about getting the right material, in the right place for the desired function, and to do this in a resource-efficient way that enables efficient recycling.
Global demand for textile fibres is increasing rapidly, and by 2050 consumption is expected to have tripled. This poses a major societal challenge as the textile and fashion industry is one of the world’s most resource-intensive industries. It has great environmental impact in every part of the value chain – from fibre production, manufacturing and processing of materials and products, to transport. In addition to this, material recycling of textiles is also one possible step in the process, but this is almost non-existent today.
At the same time, there is a significant awareness among brand owners, producers and consumers. For many, the conversion work has already begun. More resource-efficient and environmentally friendly manufacturing processes, new fibres and textile concepts, new business models, designs and systems for a circular economy are needed, in order to actually reach the global sustainability goals by 2030.
In the field of bio-based and circular textiles, the development of new types of fibres and their recycling is an important area of focus. In 2017, over 90 million tonnes of textile fibres were produced worldwide, of which about 25 percent was cotton, and just under 10 percent was cellulose from forest raw materials. In other words, fossil-based fibres dominate, representing just over 60 per cent of today’s market, and the most extensive growth takes place here – this is a trend that must be broken.
Textiles based on cellulose – that is, natural fibres that are regenerated or otherwise processed into textiles – have enormous potential in a variety of applications in both technical textiles and in fashion and design. The fibres can be made strong, and just like cotton for example, users experience the cellulose-based textiles made from forest raw materials as a material that breathes, and absorbs moisture. Much research and development is currently underway, aimed at developing more sustainable manufacturing processes for cellulose-based textiles, and also processes for their recycling. The demand for traceable and durable manufactured cellulose fibres, with selectable properties, is constantly increasing.
Composite materials are used in a variety of industries today, where there is an absolute requirement for light, strong, environmentally resistant components. Composites can be described as a combination of several materials which together form a construction material with new properties. As composites become ever more popular in a number of sectors, the demand for sustainable alternatives also increases. This means that there is a clear advantage for biocomposites where at least one of the constituents is bio-based. Biocomposite sales are also increasing year on year, in part due to stricter regulatory requirements for environmentally friendly products, increased safety demands, and recyclability requirements.
There are very good opportunities for optimising bio-based materials for the production of biocomposites in large volumes, and at low cost. Some examples are bio-based thermoplastics, the use of traditional plastic processing such as injection molding, or new additive techniques such as 3D printing.
In the transport sector, for example, the need for lightweight construction is growing at a pace, as the vehicle fleet becomes more energy-efficient and electrified. Here, existing technologies can be used to develop lightweight structures using biocomposites. Bio-based materials can also play an important role in large-scale solutions for the rapid storage and delivery of energy. There are also good opportunities for the development of bio-based solutions to supplement and replace today’s batteries, which are expensive and also contain heavy metals or rare earth metals.