Switch to a bio-based economy boosted by new University of Sheffield initiative

The discovery phase for a new network that is set to help speed up the development and adoption of bio-based and biodegradable packaging - reducing our reliance on fossil resources - has been launched by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

A close up of a woman holding a plastic bottle containing hand cream in a supermarket
  • University of Sheffield academics, together with the Bio-Based and Biodegradable Industries Association (BBIA) and Green Rose Chemistry, have been awarded funding to scope out a UK-wide science and regulatory network to help speed up the switch to a bio-based economy 
  • Discovery phase of network brings together key stakeholders in UK’s bio-based and biodegradable materials sector, to remove the major barriers around regulation, communication and policy that are slowing the commercialisation of climate-friendly materials
  • Approximately 88 per cent of chemicals and plastics are made from virgin-fossil resources and petrochemical production is increasing, despite the drive to net zero
  • The discovery phase of the Bio-based and Biodegradable Regulatory Network aims to understand barriers to commercialisation of these materials, and ultimately how they can significantly reduce our reliance on fossil resources

The discovery phase for a new network that is set to help speed up the development and wider adoption of bio-based and biodegradable packaging - reducing our reliance on fossil resources - has been launched by researchers at the University of Sheffield.

The initiative is led by Green Rose Chemistry in partnership with Professor Joanna Gavins from the University’s School of English, Professor Rachael Rothman from the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, and the BBIA. It will bring together industrialists, academics, policy makers, government officials, retailers, consumers and funding bodies to address major challenges slowing down the development of bio-based and biodegradable plastics and chemicals. 

Currently around 88 per cent of chemicals and plastics are made from virgin-fossil resources. Manufacturing chemicals and plastics accounts for approximately six per cent of global CO2-equivalent emissions. International aviation, in comparison, is responsible for around one per cent, yet despite the climate crisis and the urge to move toward net zero, petrochemical production is increasing. 

To remove our reliance on virgin-fossil resources by 2050, we will likely need at least 20 per cent of all chemicals and plastics to be manufactured from biomass; however, currently only a fraction are. 

The network will address specific challenge areas, including:

  • Regulation - Current regulations favour fossil-based incumbents, slowing market entry of bio-based materials. Legislative hurdles to assess include, REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), Plastics Packaging Tax, Extended Producer Responsibility Scheme (EPR), simpler recycling and waste management and classification
  • Standards, certification, and labelling - Standards for environmental analysis and end-of-life labelling for bio-based and biodegradable materials are inadequate and misleading. Labelling schemes and advertising are inconsistent and confusing for consumers.
  • Communication - Communication about bio-based materials is challenging, with terms such as "biodegradable" often being misused, leading to greenwashing. Clear, standardised terminology is needed
  • Policy - There is a disconnect between policies across the UK government, hindering commercialisation of bio-based materials. Research funding priorities do not align with the Biomass Strategy, DEFRA's simpler recycling guidance, or the EPR scheme. This misalignment perpetuates the unequal footing of bio-based materials and reduces benefit to the taxpayer

Linguists from the University of Sheffield are set to investigate the language surrounding bio-based and biodegradable packaging. They will examine the language used by manufacturers, retailers and policy and compare this to the language used by the general public to help identify how consumers interact with bio-based and biodegradable materials. It will also reveal communication barriers that may be hindering their adoption or resulting in their inappropriate disposal at end of life. 

Professor Joanna Gavins, Professor of English Language and Literature at the University of Sheffield, said: “This is a really exciting opportunity for us to work closely with partners in industry and in regulation to break down the barriers to the development and adoption of bio-based and biodegradable materials. Language is a key part of this problem and our project will enable us to understand how we can improve communication about innovation in materials, both from business to business and from businesses to the general public.”

Chemical engineers from Sheffield will evaluate good and bad practices around how the environmental impact of bio-based and biodegradable materials are assessed. This will help the network produce new guidelines for assessing the life cycle of materials. 

Professor Rachael Rothman, Professor of Sustainable Chemical Engineering at the University of Sheffield, said: “Bio-based and biodegradable materials have huge potential to help us achieve a sustainable future, however they can be energy intensive and complex to produce and may not degrade fully in the wrong environment. It is really important to assess the environmental footprint of the materials across the whole life cycle to ensure that their use does indeed reduce carbon emissions and that there aren’t unintended consequences.

“There is currently a lack of data on biodegradation meaning this is often poorly modelled in life cycle assessment (LCA), for example, how much carbon is sequestered in the soil and how the biodegradable plastic impacts the soil microbiome. There is also a lack of data on production of bio-based materials and this means that an LCA conducted by one person can give a very different answer to that done by another person, even for the same material.

“Guidelines are desperately needed to help streamline evaluation and development of these materials.”

A close up of a woman holding a product in biodegradable packaging in a supermarket

Green Rose Chemistry is a mission-driven UK consultancy specialising in accelerating the sustainable chemical transition. In supporting clients across sectors with chemical substitution and sustainable product development, Green Rose has developed a comprehensive understanding of the barriers faced by innovators in bio-based chemicals. These industry insights, along with technical acumen, training experience, and an extensive network in UK and international sustainable chemistry, will be leveraged by the new network to transform the policy landscape for bio-based and biodegradable chemicals and materials.

Dr Anna Zhenova, CEO of Green Rose Chemistry, said: “We’re thrilled that Innovate UK has selected our Bio-based and Biodegradable Regulatory Network for further development. The project team brings together a highly effective blend of expertise in bio-based chemicals, biodegradable materials, sustainability assessment, and linguistics, which will allow us to approach this problem from all angles and identify how we can best enable sustainable chemical innovation in the UK. As the need to address climate change grows more urgent, it’s critical that we remove barriers in the way of new materials that can build a green economy.”

The BBIA is the UK trade association that exists to champion the industrial bioeconomy and accelerate the development and adoption of bio-based and biodegradable materials and products through advocacy, collaboration, and education. BBIA provides a platform for organisations and professionals within the bio-based and biodegradable sector to network and collaborate, exchange ideas, and form partnerships, encouraging positive debate and action across the bioeconomy. The BBIA will bring deep subject matter expertise and highly relevant recent experience of engaging the sector and government, including writing national government strategies and policy.

Dr Jen Vanderhoven, COO of the BBIA, said: “Not only does the bioeconomy have significant environmental benefits by reducing our reliance on fossil resources, but the economic potential is also vast, with the sector having contributed £220 billion of output across the UK economy and supporting 5.2 million jobs, in 2014. This project will look at how we can unlock the economic and environmental impact of the bioeconomy even further, spear-heading the acceleration of the development and adoption of bio-based materials and products.”

Centres of excellence

The University's cross-faculty research centres harness our interdisciplinary expertise to solve the world's most pressing challenges.