The coffee cup challenge

David Burrows visits a new plant near Venice that could help make takeaway cups more sustainable

Britain has a problem with takeaway cups. Five billion are used each year but just one in 400 is recycled. And the prospects for any improvement would appear bleak: the number of coffee shops is expected to rise from 21,000 now to more than 30,000 by 2025, an increase that clearly equates to a demand for yet more cups. Indeed, our dependence on coffee is not expected to wane anytime soon: good news for the retailers perhaps, but bad news for resource use.

But coffee cups are only part of the story. The wider ‘food-to-go’ market, with its plastic cutlery, disposable bags and single-use napkins, is also rocketing – sales in the UK were forecast to be more than £16bn last year and are expected to reach almost £22bn by 2021. Solutions to this rapidly growing waste mountain will therefore be big business.

The solutions

There are three options for the coffee cup challenge alone. Recycle more is the obvious one, but that is far from easy and expensive. To use fewer would seem the best bet, but breaking the habit of ordering a flat white, drinking it on the way to work and chucking the empty cup in the bin will be a hard one to kick. It is one thing to buy a bag for life for 10p and carry it around, but another to fork out £12 for a reusable cup and remember to wash and pack it every day.

Sitting between those two options are compostable and biodegradable cups – which is where an industrial site in northern Italy comes in. The hamlet of Bottrighe di Adria, in the region of Venice, is home to the world’s first plant to make bio-butanediol (1,4 bio-BDO) – something the firm producing it says will reduce the carbon footprint and increase significantly the renewable content of its bioplastic products. Moreover, the plant could prove to be a marker for a wider economic, environmental and regulatory trend.

A chemical compound derived from butane, butanediol (1,4 BDO), is used both as a solvent and for the production of plastic components. Novamont, the firm behind the plant, needs the compound for its Mater-Bi bioplastics, which are used in bags, food packaging, coffee pods and, of course, cups.

But 1,4 BDO has a dirty secret – it is derived from fossil fuels. That is not a problem per se – Mater-Bi is ‘completely biodegradable and compostable’ according to all international standards (which in Europe means EN13432). But when trying to deliver the most sustainable products, with the lowest possible carbon footprints and the highest possible renewable content, BDO is not ideal.

Fossil free

Bio-BDO, on the other hand, is 100% fossil fuel free. ‘There are two processes for making butanediol,’ says plant manager Stefano Dessi. ‘One uses petroleum while ours uses glucose syrup and bacteria. They’re two completely different processes but the final products are identical.’

Creating bio-BDO in the laboratory is nothing revolutionary; but creating 30,000 tonnes of it a year as Novamont plans to at Bottrighe is. The tipping point came in 2012 when, in a project with DuPont Tate & Lyle, US company Genomatica found that the process could work commercially. The California-based bioengineering firm produced more than 2,000 tonnes of BDO by direct fermentation using conventional sugar as feedstock in a move that chief executive Christophe Schilling described as a significant milestone for the technology and the biochemical industry.

Genomatica first engineered a micro-organism in 2008 that could convert sugar into BDO. That produced only a small drop of bio-BDO, according to Schilling, so to move from that to a successful commercial-scale trial in just five years is quick indeed. The work with Novamont is on another level altogether. As Schilling noted at a conference to mark the Bottrighe site’s official opening in September, it is like starting with something the weight of an ant and ending up with an elephant.

More challenges

Originally home to the BioItalia/Ajinomoto fermentation plant, which closed in 2006, Novamont the acquired site in 2012. The company immediately embarked on a two-year regeneration programme worth €100m, removing 350 tonnes of asbestos, 150 tonnes of sludge and 1,150 tonnes of washing water. The result is an impressive combination of the old and the new – a site that harks back to the ‘good old days’ of industrialisation and offers a glimpse of a new green and fruitful bioeconomy.

The fermentation process is energy-intensive, so there are various solutions in place to improve efficiency and cut costs, including a cogeneration system to use waste heat and a biodigester for by-products. Carbon emissions have also been cut by 16,000 tonnes a year. In addition, bio-BDO will also reduce the carbon footprint of the bioplastics – the cradle-to-grave greenhouse emissions per kilo of product are at least 54% lower than those for traditional plastic.

The process comes at a price, however, and bio-BDO remains more expensive than its fossil fuel cousin. In fact, the price of conventional 1,4 BDO is at a historic low due to the lower cost of oil. Can bio-BDO compete? ‘We’re testing the market,’ says Andrea Di Stefano, Novamont’s head of special projects. ‘The bio-BDO in Bottrighe obviously costs more than conventional BDO, but this should not be a problem. The quality and purity of the product makes us optimistic about the possibility of saturating the current demand first, [then] generate new demand afterwards.’

A large market

There is a large market to crack. Annual global demand for BDO is 1.5 million tonnes, with a value
of €3.5bn. Forecasts suggest demand will rise to 2.7 million tonnes by the end of the decade, by which time the market is expected to be worth €6.5bn. But this is just a small piece of the bioeconomy pie (see panel, left), and Novamont is already exporting its model to the US.

Still, €100m is a lot of money. Novamont’s aggressive expansion – Bottrighe is the sixth site the company has regenerated – suggests chief executive Catia Bastioli sees this bigger picture. Bottrighe di Adria and bio-BDO are part of a ‘formidable platform for industrial biotechnologies [and] a great opportunity to create a competitive edge in partnership with other entities in the academic and industrial sectors’, she says.

Four-fifths of the bio-BDO will be used by Novamont to obtain the biobased azelaic acid made in its Matrìca plant in Sardinia, and for the synthesis of its Origo-Bi bio-polyester – a key ingredient of the firm’s fourth generation of Mater-Bi bioplastic.

Sold in the form of granules that can then be turned into your coffee cup, this bioplastic lifts the renewable content of the material by up to 70%. The target is 100% and the company is also making inroads on the biodegradability of the products in the marine environment (plastic pollution of the seas being a topic of much debate).

Going further

Work has already started on the fifth generation of Mater-Bi, which could also help to head off potential concerns about the use of food for anything but feeding people – an issue that the biofuels revolution has placed in the spotlight.

The 30,000 tonnes of bio-BDO requires 100,000 tonnes of glucose syrup, which is used in the food industry as a thickener, sweetener and humectant (to help retain moisture and prolong freshness). The volumes are small, but Novamont is looking one step ahead for competitive edge – and has ambitions for its fifth generation Mater-Bi, made with bio-BDO produced from sugars from lignocellulosic biomass
left over when local crops are harvested. The new process could be introduced as soon as 2018. By then, the EU’s circular economy package – a suite of policies the European Commission hopes will free the bloc from the linear model based on ‘make, use, dispose’ – should be in full swing.

Supporters of the bioeconomy suggest it is the perfect illustration of circularity in that it regenerates carbon dioxide and uses renewable raw materials to make greener everyday products. Some countries are not waiting for EU legislation to jump on the bioeconomic bandwagon.

Regulatory support

Novamont has certainly had the regulatory wind in its sails in its home country. Five years ago Italy banned non-biodegradable plastic bags, a stricture that has driven the country towards using bioplastic ones.

France is following a similar path: plastic bags were banned there in July 2016, and from 1 January single-use plastic fruit and vegetable bags had to be replaced by biodegradable bags made from paper or bioplastics. As such, France and Italy have both jumped the gun on EU legislation, which will require countries to charge for plastic bags by 2018 to cut consumption from almost 200 a person a year now to 90 in 2019 and 40 by 2025.

But bags are just the beginning. France has set its sights on disposable tableware, including cups and plates – the new Energy Transition for Green Growth Act (the same one used to squeeze out plastic bags) will be used to push plastics out and pull compostable materials in. France uses 4.73 billion single-use plastic cups each year, of which only 1% are recycled, so the market has huge potential, which is good news for those with a vested interest in bioplastics.

‘The Italian and French measures are catalysing industrial investments,’ says Di Stefano, ‘creating the conditions for an economy of scale for a range of integrated new technologies in different parts of Europe [including chemical building blocks, biolubricants and bioplastics] with a major focus on re-industrialisation of chemical sites in crisis.’

The shift has not pleased everyone, though: representatives of the food packaging industry believe France’s proposals violate EU law on the free movement of goods. They also say there are not the products on the market to satisfy the requirements of the French proposals.

Some might recall that England faced a similar issue with its plan to exempt biodegradable bags from the 5p charge on single-use carriers – but it could not find a genuinely biodegradable one.

Creating compostable or biodegradable products is only half the battle. To be environmentally effective, the compostable cup needs to end up in the right place after the drinker has that final sip of latte. Indeed, in some cases this risks an impasse in that the best environmentally-optimised innovation can be rendered useless if the infrastructure is not in place to close the loop.

Stupid to ignore the bioeconomy

An article in the November 2016 issue of Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining offered a vision of the ‘billion tonne bioeconomy’ in the US. It showed how 446 million tonnes of greenhouse gases could be avoided and 1.1 million jobs created by 2030, as more bio-based energy, fuels and products replaced petroleum-based ones.

There already 17 million people employed in the European bioeconomy – defined as the parts of the economy that use renewable biological resources from land and sea, such as crops, forests, fish, animals and micro-organisms, to produce food, materials and energy.

In the UK, the government has estimated that the country could be looking at a total bioeconomic market worth around £100bn a year. Most of the opportunity lies in unlocking more value from ‘waste’, including each year at least 100 million tonnes of carbon-containing waste and at least 14 million tonnes of bio-based residues from crops and forestry sources.

Author: 

David Burrows is a freelance writer, specialising in food and environmental policy; davidgburrows@yahoo.co.uk.

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