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We have to act!

from Ulrich Texter

bio!TOY, the first conference on toys made of plant-based plastics, took place in Nuremberg at the end of March. Bio-pioneers from the toy industry met up with experts from the bioplastics industry. Tecnaro is a trailblazer in the trend towards plant-based plastics. Dr Michael Schweizer, Head of R&D at Tecnaro, believes we are in the midst of a paradigm shift in raw materials – and that this will also affect the toy industry.


Mr Schweizer, could you take a look into your crystal ball and tell us whether the future belongs to materials made from renewable raw materials?

Portrait
Dr. Michael Schweizer, Head of R&D at Tecnaro

Dr Michael Schweizer: Oh, absolutely. At the moment, we're experiencing a sea change in the raw materials used in the plastics industry, too.

Why is that?

M.S.: One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to supply an ever faster-growing global population with clean drinking water, healthy food, raw materials and energy without endangering the opportunities of future generations. This is what Tecnaro has been saying since its foundation and it's what drives us to do our bit towards solving this global problem with our sustainable materials.

Should we ready ourselves for the fact that, in future, we will each need one third of the agricultural land in Germany for food production, one third for raw materials for energy production and another third for bio-derived polyethylene?

M.S.: No, simply because the global demand for plastic products isn't that high. One study came to the conclusion that all the land currently lying fallow in the EU and receiving subsidies so that they lie fallow would be sufficient to meet the global demand for plastic products. However, when we talk about replacing fossil fuels, things look quite different. We can't cover that demand with land.

You were one of the keynote speakers at the bio!TOY conference. Is it not just the world that has a plastic problem, but also the toy industry?

M.S.: These days, a lot of toys are made of plastic, so it's only logical that the toy industry is part of the problem. The industry will certainly be happy and grateful if, sooner or later, alternative materials are available.

hoop guide
The specialist in wooden toys, Haba, also relies on the "liquid wood" of Tecnaro

How sustainable are toys made of plant-based plastics if they have the same molecular chains as petroleum-based plastics?

M.S.: The first point to make is that plant-based plastic toys don't contain any petroleum-based plastic. From a long-term historical perspective, oil is available to us for a very short time. What is crucial, however, is that the combustion of crude oil, whether as a fuel or as a petroleum-based plastic, increases global warming because it releases CO2. Even if we were to recycle petroleum-based plastic a few times only to burn it in the end, additional CO2 would be released into the atmosphere. The materials we offer, which form the basis for toys, may also be burned at the end of the material chain, but they don't release any additional CO2, only what the plants have already absorbed, that is to say that we are living in the cycle of nature.

Does the future belong to biodegradable plastics or will so-called drop-in solutions be possible as long as we have the recycling of the plastic under control?

M.S.: The future certainly belongs to both solutions: both the biodegradable and the drop-in solutions, which basically have the same chemical structure and properties as the corresponding petrochemical products. In this respect, recycling is also of great relevance.

So biodegradable is not the better option per se?

M.S.: No, not necessarily, because even plant-based plastics that aren't biodegradable but are incinerated don't interfere with the ecological balance. In addition, you have to pay close attention to the term 'biodegradable'. The fact that my takeaway coffee mug is now biodegradable doesn't mean I can just throw it away into the countryside after using it three times. Even if the material is biodegradable, it can take years for it to actually rot down. If everyone now thinks they can throw their cups into the forest, the amount of littering is more likely to increase. There are applications where biodegradable plastics make sense. I think it's also right and important that we continue to develop special formulations, which Tecnaro offers, but the most important thing is to develop closed loop systems for materials.

Your company, founded as a spin-off of the Fraunhofer Institute for Chemical Technology in 1988, produces bioplastics and biocomposites on the basis of renewable raw materials. What is special about your family of biomaterials?

M.S.: All three biomaterials are designed for very different applications. Arboform is characterised by a particularly high level of sustainability. For the first time ever, it has been possible to recycle the substance lignin, a waste material in the pulp industry, i.e. of papermaking. The polymer lignin is mixed with natural fibres and natural additives to make a granulate, which can be used in the injection moulding process.

Figure von Janosch und Bobo
The "Little Tiger" and "Bobo Dormouse" figures for the Toniebox of Boxine GmbH are both made from Arboblend.

And the other two?

M.S.: In the case of Arbofill, we use wood fibres, which gives us a beautiful look, e.g. for household goods or office supplies. With Arboblend, renewable raw materials play a very important role. Here, we try to use very different raw materials. They can be drop-in solutions, as well as biopolyesters or biopolyamines; but they can also be natural additives or fibres. We have a whole range of materials and unbelievable design options thanks to the different raw materials.

In Nuremberg, you said that bioplastic was still something special 10 years ago. That's changed. Is the toy industry still lagging behind a bit and therefore this conference, too?

M.S.: It takes time for plant-based materials to be accepted in the marketplace. The question of why you should change something if you have been using a great material so far is quite understandable. Not infrequently, it is also a question of price; that's a factor I don't want to cover up. The fact is that it's not the plant-based materials that are too expensive, but that the petroleum-based materials are far too cheap thanks to the low oil prices over the years. Ecologically, this was and is a catastrophe for all humanity. I predict that this will change, and drastically at that. Returning to the question, I don't know if the toy industry is lagging behind, but things will change.

So the FridaysForFuture movement expresses precisely what you feel, right?

M.S.: I am very happy about that, to be quite honest, when students say that their future is more important to them than lessons.

Germany likes to act as a pioneer in the field of environmental protection, obsessively separating waste while producing more and more of it. Do we need to rethink things and be more sustainable in children's bedrooms?

M.S.: I think so, and that will mainly be achieved through education. Children are very good listeners: they are open, receptive and very sensitive when they see pictures of animals dying in the sea. Education must, therefore, start in the kindergartens and continue in the schools. In my opinion, there's a great deal at stake right now and if you ask me whether children's bedrooms should be more sustainable, then I say yes, but not through prohibitions, but through education.

During the bio!TOY conference, the European Parliament decided to remove plastic plates, cotton swabs and drinking straws from circulation. It seems these things can't be achieved without regulatory policy, doesn't it?

M.S.:  The bans make sense. The oceans are full of plastic waste. Personally, however, I believe it is more important to change people's awareness, because I believe that people are capable of learning and are willing to tackle this problem, but it's true that we have to act – and act now.

Thank you for talking to us, Mr Schweizer.

 

"In my opinion, there's a great deal at stake right now and if you ask me whether children's bedrooms should be more sustainable, then I say yes, but not through prohibitions, but through education."

Dr. Michael Schweizer


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Author of this article:

Ulrich Texter

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