Stefaan de Wildeman Stefaan de Wildeman Paul van der Veer

Darwin vs industrial-capitalist thinking

Written by  Patrick Marx Wednesday, 16 September 2015 08:04

The industrial dogma “cheaper is better” is about to prove short-sighted, according to Maastricht University (UM) professor of New Biobased Building Blocks Stefaan de Wildeman. In addition to developing new plastics from renewable sources in his laboratory on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus, he is working to change the way we think about plastics. “The heyday of capitalism must make way for a natural evolution towards renewable plastics that are not necessarily cheaper.”

“Give a child a plastic spoon and tell him he’ll eat with this spoon for the rest of his life. His appreciation of the spoon will change instantly”, De Wildeman says. “We take plastic for granted: it’s there, you use it and then you throw it away almost unthinkingly, without questioning it.” Those who do ask questions will be startled to learn about the journey a simple sandwich bag makes before it ends up wrapped around their lunch. “A sandwich bag might start out as crude oil extracted in the Middle East, refined in Rotterdam and turned into plastic at Chemelot. It’s then made into sandwich bags in China and finally sent back to Europe. A sandwich bag costs next to nothing, despite having been transported all around the world. Yet the production, transport and recycling of plastics accounts for a significant amount of all fossil fuel consumption worldwide. This approach to producing and using plastic is environmentally unsustainable.”

The problems De Wildeman cites arose in the mid-20th century as a result of unrestricted fossil fuel extraction and the introduction of plastics. “The sole considerations were costs and growth. Modern plastics began to take over from renewable and often more locally produced materials, such as wood and wool, and factors like human behaviour, perception and afterlife were neglected. But this purely cost-driven thinking is gradually yielding to the belief that plastics should be sustainable. One advantage of plastics made from new building blocks is that they often combine certain properties that make them more suitable for a finished product.”

The way consumers think about sustainability is changing as well. “People drive electric cars with a limited range even though these are much more expensive than traditional cars. So it’s conceivable that consumers might also become interested in sustainable plastic products.” But as De Wildeman knows, this may be comparing apples with oranges: “Products such as electric cars are sensational; they catch the eye. Things we consider to be normal, like plastics, attract far less attention. We have to restore people’s awareness of the ecological costs and physical reality of the materials we use. I’m really looking forward to the psychological aspects of this challenge.”

Changing our perception of plastics is one thing, but developing new plastics from biobased materials is quite another. “We’re designing new building blocks which we use to produce polymers, optimised for parameters such as the local availability of renewable sources.” The rise of new plastics, De Wildeman predicts, will be an evolutionary process. “Nature always seeks diversification, in combination with selection processes that favour the fittest species. The process of replacing fossil-based plastics with sustainable alternatives will follow the same course. Rather than one type of sustainable plastic, there will be thousands, each with their own value and most suitable application.” To paraphrase Darwin, the survival of the cheapest plastics is set to become the ‘survival of the fittest plastics’. It’s no coincidence that this was the title of De Wildeman’s inaugural lecture on 11 September.

One institute on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus that is working on the production and application of sustainable materials is the Aachen–Maastricht Institute for Biobased Materials (AMIBM). De Wildeman: “In this institute, we’re figuring out how to create building blocks such as rubber, for car tyres, out of plants like dandelions. The difficulties lie in the extremities of the production chain. On the one hand, we have highly competent researchers who are modifying plants, but know little about producing finished plastic products. On the other hand, we have the producers of the finished products, who know little about developing the building blocks. Fortunately, UM has a multidisciplinary team that can supervise and unite the entire production chain. The university serves as an interpreter and moderator, enabling all of the links in the chain to collaborate effectively. Having a good overview of the entire process also increases the chances of success for start-ups that arise from our research. This kind of social impact is of paramount importance for UM, and for me makes the challenge extra interesting.” One ongoing project at AMIBM involves the development of fibre-reinforced plastics. These plastics traditionally consist of two components: the synthetic material with fibres made of, say, glass or carbon. “We reinforce plastics with fibres made of the same material”, explains De Wildeman. “This means the end product contains only one material, which makes it easier to recycle.”

The development of biobased building blocks for sustainable plastics requires a new type of scientist. In the new master’s programme Biobased Materials, UM aims to nurture such scientists. “We don’t train traditional polymer chemists and then teach them how to deal with sustainable materials”, De Wildeman says. “Instead we provide them from the outset with the knowledge they need to develop new types of sustainable plastics. And we give them a broad foundation so that they can maintain an overview of the entire production chain, from raw material to finished product. Twenty years from now, these students will be the new leaders of a plastics industry in which the main issues are not only acceptable costs, but also sufficient functionality and outstanding sustainability.”

Stefaan De Wildeman (1975) obtained his PhD at Ghent University/Friedrich-Schiller University Jena before joining DSM to work on biocatalysis. In 2013 he launched a research group on new biobased building blocks at UM, serving two new biobased institutes: the Aachen–Maastricht Institute for BioBased Materials (AMIBM) and the Institute for Science and Technology (InSciTec), both on the Brightlands Chemelot Campus.

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