Plastics are everywhere, and the problems they pose are well documented. In 2020, the world produced an estimated 353 million tonnes of plastic waste, vast amounts of which have gone on to pollute landscapes, oceans and even the air, causing detrimental impacts to our climate, ecosystems and health.
Plastics are now in our food, our drink, the air we breathe and almost every product we buy. So ubiquitous has the material become, it feels almost irreplaceable in the modern economy.
But rather than continuing to inflict damage to the planet, what if the millions of tonnes of plastics used to make bottles, food packaging, carrier bags, clothes, carpets and much more every year, were actually made from a sustainable, plant-based, fossil fuel-free polymer that was both fully recyclable and degradable?
If that sounds too much like wishful thinking, it is precisely the type of material a new manufacturing plant near Delfzijl in the Netherlands aims to begin producing once it is up and running from 2024. The pilot facility is set to use a novel process that has been years in development, and the Dutch company behind the technology, Avantium, has just secured the final chunk of the $209 million financing needed to begin construction work.
The company already boasts relationships dating back 10 years with Coca-Cola and Danone — both of which are shareholders — in addition to working with Carlsberg on developing "paper" beer bottles. And should the pilot plant prove successful, and the company gains further traction among packaging producers and brands in the coming years, then Avantium's plant-based polymers could represent an important breakthrough in the battle against plastic waste, according to the firm's CEO, Tom Van Aken.
Should the pilot plant prove successful, and the company gains further traction among packaging producers and brands in the coming years, then Avantium's plant-based polymers could represent an important breakthrough.
"I think it's very good news for industry, but also for everyone who is interested in sustainable plastics, that in 2024 a new bio-polymer is coming to the market, and hopefully will come to your supermarket or can be found in your refrigerator," he tells us. "I'm very pleased that we've made this important step to make it a commercial reality."
Given the scale of the plastics crisis — which saw 22 million tonnes leak into the environment in 2020 — the proposed plant remains small in scale, with an initial capacity to produce just 5,000 tonnes of plant-based plastic a year — enough to make around 200 million bottles.
But the project is attracting significant interest from leading plastic packaging producers, with Avantium having already signed five offtake contracts which together cover the first 50 percent of the plant's capacity, in addition to securing another major brand as a partner for the facility.
Van Aken is reluctant to disclose the names of these firms at the present time. But on paper, at the very least, it stands to reason consumer goods, food, beverage and packaging companies with large plastic footprints would be interested in the solution Avantium has developed. Legislative walls have been gradually closing in on single-use plastics and waste right around the world in recent years, particularly in Europe. The U.K. has set a goal to eliminate avoidable plastic waste by the end of 2042, for example, and earlier this month hundreds of countries agreed to get the ball rolling on drawing up a landmark, legally-binding global plastics treaty, akin to the Paris Agreement on climate change.
Companies will struggle to rid themselves of plastics altogether, so alternative polymers offer a means to massively cut carbon and environmental footprints right across their value chains.
Corporates, which were already feeling increased pressure from consumers to reduce their dependency on plastic, have stepped up their ambitions too, through initiatives such as the UK Plastics Pact, which sets targets to eliminate unnecessary single-use packaging and ensure 100 percent of packaging is reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.
But these companies will struggle to rid themselves of plastics altogether, and so alternative polymers such as that touted by Avantium offer a means to massively cut carbon and environmental footprints right across their value chains. Once the pilot plant is up and running, the plan is to license out the technology to allow other firms to expand production worldwide.
The material Avantium is aiming to manufacture at scale is called polyethylene furanoate (PEF), a 100 percent plant-based plastic it claims is fully recyclable and degradable. The company has developed a process that converts plant-based sugars — such as fructose syrup or agricultural feedstock — into purified furandicarboxylic acid (FDCA), a chemical building block for plastic. That FDCA can then be taken to polymerization plant to be turned into PEF, which has a vast array of potential end uses, according to Van Aken.
He estimates around 75 percent of its PEF would probably be used for packaging such as bottles or food-grade plastic film, with the remainder potentially going into industries such as textiles, electronics and automotive for use as plant-based synthetic fibers in clothes, shoes and upholstery.
"In other words, the possibilities are — well, they're not endless, but they are very large and diverse in terms of the potential outlets for this new material," says Van Aken.
Crucially, fully recyclable polymers such as that developed by Avantium can help to replace conventional plastics that might be harder to recycle, such as polyethylene and polypropylene. So if — as many backers of the mooted UN global plastics treaty are hoping — efforts are made to improve recycling infrastructure and product design worldwide while at the same preventing waste where possible, that is all to the good, according to Van Aken. But he says what is also needed is a sea change in the types of plastics that are used, away from hard-to-recycle conventional plastics, towards plant-based, polymer plastics. Only that way can the much-heralded vision of a circular economy be realized.
We're never going to be looking at recycling as the solution to get us into the circular economy, we need to have other solutions too.
"A few years ago there were companies that thought they were going to be recycling themselves out of this problem," he explains. "A few years down the road, the big brands all realize that recycling is great, but it is not enough. We're never going to be looking at recycling as the solution to get us into the circular economy, we need to have other solutions too. That is because many of the plastics we are using today are not well suited at all for recycling, or because we don't have the right collection and recycling systems.
"We require a new, different mix of polymers and plastics to get to that circular economy. There's not going to be one polymer that does it all, unfortunately."
Van Aken is keen to stress that Avantium's PEF is far from the only new polymer that will be needed to wean the world off its addiction to conventional plastics, and stresses that waste prevention and reuse should always be the first port of call when disposing of materials, ahead of recycling. But when all is said and done, even the most robust recycling supply chains are likely to see plastic waste leak into the environment, which is where Avantium's PEF boasts another green advantage: It is degradable. While most bacteria and microbes will not eat conventional plastics that take hundreds if not thousands of years to break down in the environment, they will happily chow down on PEF, which has been shown to degrade 100 times faster.
"The nice thing about a new, next-generation polymer like ours is that if 10 percent ends up in nature, it is going to disappear in a few years' time, because the microbes and bacteria are going to digest it, just like a piece of wood," Van Aken explains. "But I don't see PEF as an end-of-life solution. We want all of these plastics we create to be returned through a deposit or collection system so we can recycle or reuse it. Then we can keep the material in the loop. That is the circular economy where we want to fit in. The whole degradable part is a sort of safety valve, so if it unintentionally ends up in nature, it is not going to accumulate — it will be gone in a few years' time."
From petrochemicals to sustainable chemicals
The fact that the PEF is fossil fuel-free also means production of the material has a far lower carbon footprint, and it is far less exposed to the volatile, geopolitically fraught oil and gas market, which can heap sudden cost hikes on conventional plastic producers. Moreover, it shines the light on another fascinating aspect of Avantium, which has far more strings to its bow than simply manufacturing alternative plastics.
The company was originally founded at the turn of the millennium as a spin-out from Shell. But although it has not held a stake in the company for two decades, Shell remains a customer of Avantium, which derives much of its present income from making catalysts for oil refineries and petrochemical plants.
Even so, Van Aken is clear that the firm's future lies in sustainable chemistry. "We believe in a fossil-free economy in 2050, so I think it's very clear we want to be out of petroleum and natural gas by 2050," he says. "You can see that the whole industry is moving away from these fossil resources and really wants to make that shift towards renewables. This will have major implications not only for energy but maybe even more importantly for the chemical industry, which is currently around 95 percent dependent on petroleum. The industry will have to come up with new feedstocks, new products, new processes. If you're a scientist or an engineer, this is just going to be a great time to be working in the chemical industry, because we basically have to reinvent almost everything."
Turning CO2 into plastic
Which, as it happens, appears to be precisely what Avantium is doing. Not content with threatening to disrupt the plastics, oil, and gas, the firm also has its sights on carbon capture use and storage (CCUS) opportunities.
One criticism of the plant-based plastics sector is that while it is currently relatively modest in size, it does still require feedstocks that, like the biofuel industry, could have knock-on impacts on land use. As such, Avantium is exploring how it could harness CO2 as a feedstock for producing the chemical building blocks of fossil-free plastics, through a process it claims to have already proven at small scale. The potential here is, of course, reliant on the scale-up of carbon capture capacity for Avantium to tap into as an off-taker of the resulting CO2, but should the cost of carbon and climate policies kick in as expected and the CCS industry scale up over the coming decade and beyond, then there should in theory be little shortage of feedstock. CCS projects should inevitably prefer to sell the CO2 they capture than pay to bury it underground. The company has even been working with Swiss direct air capture pioneer Climeworks over the potential for using the CO2 it sucks out of the air.
"You don't need to drive far in Europe to find all kinds of cement, steel or electricity plants that dump millions of tonnes of CO2 into the air, so finding good sources of CO2 is not so difficult," explains Van Aken. "And there will of course be an increasing burden for having to pay to release that CO2 into the atmosphere, so there's a driver there to see if we can use it. If we can capture the carbon and use it to make materials or fuels, that is something which has much more promise than storage."
Avantium may have taken some time to get the financing in place, but investor interest is palpable.
Still, having spent 15 years developing the plant-based plastics technology, Van Aken's immediate focus is very much on getting the pilot PEF plant up and running over the next couple of years. It may have taken some time to get the financing in place, but investor interest is palpable. As well as negotiating $98.97 million in debt financing for the pilot plant from a consortium of four Dutch banks — ABN AMRO Bank, ASN Bank, ING Bank and Rabobank — Avantium has secured backing from, among others, engineering giant Worley, which is partnering on the development of the project.
Getting to this stage has not been plain sailing. We last spoke to Van Aken two years ago, just days before COVID-19 led to a lockdown in the U.K. and across many parts of Europe. The pandemic posed significant challenges in negotiating the financing over the past couple of years and slowed timetables down somewhat, Van Aken admits, but he also weathered a tough period around the 2007-2008 financial crisis, and has never once considered throwing in the towel.
"It's not really in my personality to give up easily," he says. "If I had a different personality, I would have stopped a number of times, because in 2008 it was extremely challenging to raise money for these types of long-term projects. It's quite tough to find the investments and form the capital for these types of innovations, as they are capital intensive and long-term, which is a difficult combination."
But despite the challenges, Van Aken says he has enjoyed the ride, the success of which he puts down to his colleagues. "It has been incredibly fun and rewarding to be working on this," he reflects. "People really like to put in that effort for something where you have the prospect of making a real impact on a large scale on really meaningful issues, like climate change and plastic pollution. That really gets the best out of people, and is what has really gotten us to this point."
Having secured financing for the pilot PEF plant, Avantium's perseverance is starting to pay off, and it is poised to sow its seeds of disruption across the petrochemicals industry. The company may have been born out of the oil and gas sector, but it could well play a major role in furthering the transition to a net zero emission economy.