Driven by customers, activist investors, governments, and their own values, companies are increasingly looking to make a more positive impact on the environment by adopting a sustainability focus. An important arena for those activities is the emerging bioeconomy, which focuses on using biological (nonfossil) resources, waste streams, and manufacturing byproducts, often combined with a circular, whole-life-cycle product perspective.
This movement is enabled by new materials technologies and processes that replace fossil-based ingredients with bio-based alternatives from the agriculture, forestry, and marine industries. Circularity comes in with strategies aimed at extending the useful life of products for as long as possible and then reusing their materials and components in some way.
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Multiple materials and technologies can replace fossil-based ingredients and components, such as packaging made from bamboo and mushrooms, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals made from seaweed and algae, and plastics made from microbes and dandelions. The global demand for plastic alone is 300 million tons per year, a figure projected to quadruple by 2050. Bioplastics made from plant-based feedstocks are a way to make a dent in the fossil-based standards.
A Decade-Plus of Experimentation
Products and processes in the bioeconomy cover wide ground. Think using bacteria to extend the shelf life of dairy products, consuming gut-health foods that reduce our reliance on antibiotics for animals and humans, and generating energy from sewage sludge — and then using the waste from that process to make agricultural fertilizer.
Bioplastics made from plant-based feedstocks can replace petroleum-based materials in the 300 million tons of plastic consumed annually.
We are more than a decade into experimentation. Coca-Cola, for instance, introduced the first iteration of its PlantBottle in 2009, positioning the 30% bio-based plastic as a more sustainable alternative to traditional plastic. These bottles were not compostable, though, and accusations of “biowashing” followed. In response, the company has stepped up its research into 100% bio-based plastic, sourced from sugarcane and the residues of sugarcane processing, with prototypes introduced in October 2021. Coca-Cola shared its technology, first with noncompetitive brands such as Heinz ketchup and Ford Fusion hybrid cars (for the fabric interior), and then, in 2018, with competitors, to scale up demand and drive down pricing.
Other projects are yielding a variety of market-ready products, with varying degrees of market adoption.
1. L. Teitelbaum, C. Boldt, and C. Patermann, “Global Bioeconomy Policy Report (IV): A Decade of Bioeconomy Policy Development Around the World,” PDF file (Berlin: International Advisory Council on Global Bioeconomy, November 2020), https://gbs2020.net.
2. L. Lange, K. O’Connor, S. Arason, et al., “Developing a Sustainable and Circular Bio-Economy in EU: By Partnering Across Sectors, Upscaling and Using New Knowledge Faster, and for the Benefit of Climate, Environment and Biodiversity, and People and Business,” Frontiers in Bioengineering and Biotechnology, Jan. 21, 2021, www.frontiersin.org.
4. “Biofuels Threaten Lands of 60 Million Tribal People,” Survival International, April 30, 2008, www.survivalinternational.org; and Institute of Medicine, “Ethical and Social Issues,” ch. 7 in “The Nexus of Biofuels, Climate Change, and Human Health: Workshop Summary” (Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2014).