Biodegradable plastic bags have long been available, as have cleaning agents and building materials made from sustainable raw materials. Experts are in agreement that far more could be done with the available technology – provided there was sufficient demand. Bio-based ingredients still play a marginal role in public sector and business procurement in Europe. This, despite their potential to contribute to a more responsible use of natural resources and a greener, more sustainable economy. What could be done to make bio-based products more appealing? This question was the subject of two surveys of experts conducted as part of the EU-funded project Open Bio, the findings of which have been published in the journal Biofuels, Bioproducts and Biorefining.
Market drivers vary significantly across EU
IASS researcher Rainer Quitzow and Jan Peuckert (Technische Universität Berlin) surveyed 324 experts on private sector procurement (Business-to-Business, B2B) from 17 EU countries along with 171 experts on public sector procurement from 12 EU countries. Participants were questioned about the major market drivers and barriers, key information deficits, and their views on the role of product labelling and standardisation. The survey of private sector experts showed that the factors influencing the emergence or direction of market trends vary significantly across Europe.
“In France, for example, local value creation is a major driver. Seventy per cent of respondents considered it to be important. In Italy, on the other hand, biodegradable products are much more popular than in other EU countries. Around half of the Italian respondents considered this criterion important, and biodegradable cutlery and bio-plastic bags are already in widespread use there. However, their prevalence reflects an attempt to compensate for the fact that recycling systems there are less advanced,” explained Rainer Quitzow. The market drivers and barriers identified by German respondents were in line with those considered relevant by most other respondents across Europe. Respondents identified a range of positive effects relating to bio-based products, including lower fossil fuel dependence, reductions in CO2 emissions, and public image benefits.
EU develops standards for bio-based products
The results of these surveys will inform the work of the European Committee for Standardisation (CEN), which is developing standards for bio-based products that are attuned to market requirements. A database for use in public sector procurement has already been established within the framework of the Open Bio project, providing information on bio-based products for use in landscape gardening, electronics, and office furnishings. The sustainability of these products will need to be reviewed on a case by case basis however, emphasised Quitzow: “The environmental benefits of bio-based products remain unclear and few studies have been undertaken to compare bio-based products with conventional products.”
Environmental performance certification schemes (eco-labels) rarely take the impact of extracting fossil-based raw materials into consideration. Instead, the political scientist explained, they tend to focus on production processes and waste disposal. Existing recycling systems have been developed to handle conventional products, lending these products a clear advantage in the competition for certification. The development of EU-wide standards will play an important role in addressing this challenge. Extending the scope of eco-labelling schemes to include the impacts of extracting raw materials, Quitzow and Peuckert argue, would contribute to efforts to increase the acceptance of bio-based products.
Peuckert, J., Quitzow, R. (2016 online): Acceptance of bio-based products in the business-to-business market and public procurement: Expert survey results. - Biofuels, Bioproducts & Biorefining.