Biomaterials market needs government backing

Developing a UK market in biomaterials could boost the economic and environmental health of the nation, says a new government forum. Crop products such as oils and starches could feed the growing market in biopackaging and replace toxic substances with safer bio-alternatives. But government-assisted programmes may be needed to kick-start new technologies and tap into the European biomaterials market.

In its first annual report, the Government-Industry Forum on Non-Food Uses of Crops is calling for more support for the UK biopackaging industry and government-backed projects to replace synthetic chemicals with biomaterials. Regulations will also need to be changed to promote new products and new methods of processing.

The Department of Environment forum, which was set up to assess the UK market for agricultural materials, highlights a number of untapped areas for industry including compostable packaging made from wheat starch, ink-printing and cleaning solvents made from vegetable oil and insulation using wool. Plant oil-based lubricants could replace existing coolant for underground electricity cables, where an estimated 100km portion of cable loses 7,000 litres of toxic mineral oil coolant every year.

The panel of experts explored potential uses for materials such as wheat and wool that are surplus in the UK. The use of straw bales in construction has not yet been evaluated or exploited in the UK, says the report. Bioplastics derived from starch are manufactured across Europe and the USA, but in the UK starch-based moulded and film packaging has not yet reached the market.

“In developing waste management and packaging legislation it must be recognised that the biopackaging industry is at an early stage in product development, and that where the technology for the production of compostable supermarket carrier bags exists, that for compostable injection moulded ready-meal trays may not yet be readily available. A careful system of regulatory pressure combined with Government-assisted programmes such as STI and Faraday is called for,” says the report.

The forum also acknowledges that the market’s growth will be influenced by technological advances, competition with cheap petrochemical products, and regulations on the quality and reliability of raw materials. Bio-based materials currently command less than 0.1% of European polymer production, so could be further exploited. But starch-based plastics, although better for the environment because of their biodegradatability, are often inferior to petrochemicals in terms of gas barrier and moisture permeability, says the report, although these properties could be enhanced by adding polyesters, which could themselves be made from natural oils.

Ongoing case studies that will continue to be monitored by the forum include the replacement of synthetic dyes with natural ones, antimicrobial products made from plants, and oat-based cosmetics.

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