In October last year, the European Commission announced six priority areas as part of a renewed industrial policy that it hopes will improve industry's share of the EU's GDP from the current level of 15.6% to approximately 20% by 2020.
The six priority areas are: advanced manufacturing technologies for clean production, markets for key enabling technologies, bio-based products, sustainable construction and raw materials, clean vehicles, and smart grids.
European plastics associations have responded positively to the Commission's policy priorities, but they also have varied and diverging concerns.
European Bioplastics, the association of bioplastics producers, welcomed the Commission's policy announcement. Andy Sweetman, chairman of the group, said in a statement that bio-based markets “could make a substantial contribution to the EU's transformation into a more sustainable economy. The right legislation and framework conditions will, however, be needed to encourage uptake of renewable raw materials for industrial use”.
Plastics are likely to benefit in many of the six priority areas, but the focus on bio-based products could give a particular boost to plastics from renewable resources.
PlasticsEurope has members that produce polymers from both fossil and renewable resources and is generally supportive of bioplastics growing their market share. But its position includes recommendations about verifying claims for bioplastics about biodegradability and compostability, and recognising that function and cost are also key factors when plastics - whether fossil or bio-based - are selected for products.
Wilfried Haensel, executive director at PlasticsEurope, said: “We have seen the announcement of the Commission and welcome the goal to strengthen the industrial basis of Europe. In our contacts with the Commission on various topics we are reminding them that they should ensure that the interests of industrial production in Europe are better recognised than in the past when it comes to decisions on environmental and other issues.”
European Bioplastics' main concern, though, is that the Commission is not backing its intentions with the necessary action. Policy discussions with the Commission have been going on for some time and the process is “not easy”, said Roland Scharathow, who is deputy managing director and in charge of policy affairs at European Bioplastics.
The association is concerned that investment in bioplastics production is growing faster in Asia and South America than it is in Europe. In research it published in October, European Bioplastics showed that in 2011 Asia's share of bioplastics production capacity was 34.6%, South America's was 32.8% and Europe's was 18.5%. By 2016, it expects new investments to boost these shares to 46.3% in Asia and 45.1% in South America while Europe's share will drop to 4.9%.
Europe-based bioplastics producers would benefit if there were an EU policy framework that supports investment in production similar to the one in place for renewable energy and biofuels. Acting on this framework, member states have enacted various measures such as biofuel product quotas and producer tax breaks.
Getting a similar EU framework for biochemicals and bioplastics has been difficult, however, said Scharathow.
Europe has the most highly regulated agricultural market in the world and this causes feedstock price problems for bioplastics producers. There are a lot of vested interests in maintaining high prices, although Scharathow said: “Farmers are supportive of bioplastics as they see us as a feedstock market of the future.”
European Bioplastics faces some large policy hurdles on the production side, but it is also pursuing other policy areas such as market development and recycling improvements.
The association may make more headway with the Commission with its participation in the Biobased Industries Public Private Partnership (PPP). This is a consortium of 30 companies and clusters involved in a wide range of bio-based products, from chemicals and paper, to food and biofuels. The PPP has submitted a proposal to the Commission which sets out a vision for how a bio-based economy can be achieved.
Scharathow stressed that the PPP proposal has not yet been approved, but if it is, it could channel R&D investment funds to developing new materials. The EU launched its Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme in 2011, and this will direct billions of euros of R&D investment into a variety of areas, including some that are analogous to the industrial policy priorities, such as bio-based products.
Scharathow said the PPP's R&D plans include improving biorefinery technology and looking at the potential for using new types of biomass feedstocks and producing new biomaterials.
With obstacles in the way of Europe boosting production volumes, the development of new bioplastics may become the key weapon with which European bioplastics producers can fight back against Asian and South American competitors.