Stefaan De Wildeman, founder of Belgian tech company B4PLASTICS, outlines how its innovative ecological plastics are enabling the evolution from traditional fossil-based plastics
Working to guarantee a pioneering novel balance between price, quality, functionality and sustainability, Belgian tech company B4PLASTICS is developing, designing, and distributing eco-plastics utilising the use of local, renewable, and biodegradable resources.
From compostable drinking straws to the fastest degradable trimming line in the world, B4PLASTICS’s novel ecological plastic materials are paving the way for the plastic economy of tomorrow, today.
The company’s founder, Stefaan De Wildeman, spoke to The Innovation Platform about the need to shift from traditional fossil-based plastics to new, greener alternatives, and how B4PLASTICS is leading that journey.
What does B4PLASTICS hope to achieve?
B4PLASTICS is one of the first ‘polymer architecture’ companies in the world, designing polymeric and oligomeric materials towards their unprecedented sweet spot in cost-function-ecology for plastics applications. Of course, the definition of ‘plastic’ is extremely broad – many lubricants that people use on their bicycles contain oligomeric or polymeric materials, for instance – and so the polymer architectures that we develop have many different application areas.
B4PLASTICS’s mission is to make it easier for people to bring their relationship with everyday plastics to a higher ecological level. We believe that there is potential for a whole new plastics universe to exist, which is a completely different way of approaching the idea of sustainability than, say, the concept of recycling, which essentially does nothing about the current generations of fossil-based plastics other than handling them in a different way. At B4PLASTICS, we believe that the ability for the plastics to degrade in a controlled way, and a much better connection with green raw materials, will lead to different types of plastics coming to the market than the ones that have been discovered, found, and exploited during the fossil era.
Can you tell me a little about some of B4PLASTICS’s products – Biorix® and Compost3D®? What makes them unique in comparison to other bioplastics? What barriers are there to their wider roll-out?
Biorix is the first drinking straw in the world to have been certified as being home compostable. What is more, Biorix also offers a much better user experience than has been seen with many of the other alternatives to plastic straws that we have seen emerge in recent months and years, such as paper straws. Biorix really feels like the conventional straw in terms of how it feels to the touch as well as in the actual experience, as it has a neutral taste, texture, and so on. Biorix has been launched in Belgium and is now available for purchase throughout the country.
Compost3D is a compostable filament for use in 3D printers. We have also developed a smartphone app which enables the user to calculate the afterlife compost time of their prints before they even print them, as the app analyses the data for the article that is to be printed, including the thicknesses, density, infill, and so on, and can thereby determine how long that printed article will take to degrade. Users can therefore envision the end of life situation for their product before it is even created!
Ecotrim is a filament that degrades quicker than any other trimming line in the world at the professional level and is also the world’s strongest degradable material.
Plastics, of course, can be qualified as being degradable or nondegradable, and yet there are also many other elements that should be taken into consideration when discussing biodegradability, such as which environment(s) the material will degrade in, the speed at which it degrades, what is degrading it, what intermediates are there when it degrades, and what end products are left when it is degraded.
As a company, B4PLASTICS’s is pioneering how degradation is described and defined. We subject many of our novel plastics from our polymer architecture competence to microbial studies, for instance. Indeed, our scientists have recently discovered one of the first micro-organisms that degrades our extremely strong material, and we are involved in numerous other studies designed to further elucidate the fate and degradation rates of different types of plastic. As an organic chemist, engineer, and microbiologist myself, I believe that it is important for the company to be active in this area.
Is it important for there to be diversity in the plastics that are available?
Achieving diversity in plastics is essentially what we are here for. Every day, we explore new plastics, designing and developing them and incorporating new combinations of functionalities.
There are many reasons behind the need for more diversity in plastics. One is that if you look at Nature and Darwinian natural selection, it is clear that Nature has, over millennia, tried out many different ways of organising molecules and even many different living beings, and while only a few of these persist, they result in the incredible level of diversity that we now see in the world around us. We believe that the same is true of plastics. That is, the world will not be dominated by polyethylene, polypropylene, and polystyrene, and perhaps one or two other plastics; this does not present a diverse enough landscape and, what is more, when other, more suited materials are developed, the older ones will begin to become extinct. This, then, could be described as the ‘survival of the fittest plastics’.
Such newer, better plastics will, of course, have significant environmental benefits. For instance, fishing nets– made from conventional nylons – can be made from our strong degradable material family, further developed in the EU project ‘Glaukos’. Nylons are very strong, but their degradation is zero. As such, the huge amounts of this material being used goes on to create microplastics in our marine environment. And even as people are now increasingly aware of issues such as microplastic pollution, many of them will not think about how their own fish consumption will be contributing to the problem.
As a company, B4PLASTICS has a role in helping to inform people about the benefits of alternative plastic solutions.
How important are sustainable polymeric materials to the future sustainable economy?
It must be understood that around one fourth to one third of global energy expenditure is from the chemicals and plastics industry. While some of that is a result of their carbon content, a significant amount also comes from the manufacturing process and, indeed, the logistics element which is required to transport these products around the world. As such, making novel plastics at the local level would essentially eradicate much of the logistics involved and thereby reduce much of the industry’s emissions.
As we transition towards a sustainable (bio)economy, we need plastics that can be made from local green resources and that are degradable (or at least much easier to recycle). Huge logistics profits can be achieved which, of course, translate into environmental benefits.
What challenges have you experienced in scaling up?
A balance needs to be struck. Any business needs a vision and a mission, but that should not be too rigid. If there is no flexibility in your targets – and the routes you plan to take to achieve them – then there is a very real risk of failure. On the other hand, no clearly-defined goals or a set of objectives that are too diverse can be just as dangerous, as there is a lack of focus.
We have hopefully struck a subtle balance between the two; we are active in a few main domains where we feel there is potential, and we are developing other ideas where application areas and markets are not, as yet, well-defined. This does mean, however, that if one product doesn’t work out the way we had planned, then we have others that can take its place.
What are your hopes for the future? What is next for your business?
Several well-known brands have positively tested our products, and we are now in a dialogue with them to see how we can supply them at multi (kilo)ton levels in the near (or further) future.
We will also continue to build on the strength of the prototyping element of the business, too. Using our polymer architecture, we are one of the only companies in the world that can prototype a kilogramme of completely new plastic types in less than six months, and that is of huge interest and benefit to many big brands who can often struggle with materials challenges for years.
We have also recently been awarded EU funding through the SME Instrument, which will certainly help us to develop and innovate in the future.
We will also be working to scale up the plastic products we have already developed, because that is the only way we will be able to make a real impact.
Please note, this article will also appear in the fourth edition of our new quarterly publication.