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“Words won’t solve our environmental problems”

We need to reduce our environmental impact and one hot topic of discussion is the replacement of fossil products with bio-based alternatives. However, this isn’t always the best solution.

Many of the raw materials and products we use today are fossil-based and could indeed be replaced with bio-based alternatives; plastic packaging is only one example, but this also applies to fuels, chemicals and textiles. But is it possible, or even desirable, to replace all of these?

“We could replace a great many of the fossil-based products we use today but I’m dubious about whether we should. There is also a sustainability aspect to using bio-based materials,” contends Dina Dedic, senior research associate at RISE Bioeconomy.

The availability of biomass is limited and we need to ensure that forests are utilised in a sustainable manner that doesn’t have a negative impact on the environment and ecosystems. Instead of obsessing over which products we could manufacture from bio-based materials, it is more important that we take a holistic view and implement a system shift. 

“Beautiful formulations and cool projects won’t be enough to truly come to grips with future climate and environmental challenges; our work needs to be targeted where we can really make an overarching difference,” continues Dina Dedic.

Among other things, implementing a system shift and making a difference will involve the better utilisation of existing resources.

“As an example, we have developed a paper material from jeans dust. We took leftovers from the textile industry, mixed it with paper pulp and obtained high-quality paper as the final product. This demonstrates how we can utilise our resources efficiently,” explains Dina Dedic.

Woman in white t-shirt with red skirt
Photo: David Lagerlöf
Dina Dedic, senior research associate at RISE.

Different materials for different purposes

The main focus of the field of bioeconomics is on trying to think strategically about what can actually be reused and what can be replaced by bio-based alternatives. Plastics are one example of the habitual use of a product, in this case one that causes both littering and microparticles that pollute the oceans. We need to become better at reusing and recycling plastic, as well as replacing it with bio-based alternatives.

“In some cases, plastics are more sustainable while in others, it would be better to use fibre materials, for example paper. As yet, we don’t have all of the answers; however, we are working to understand what role bio-based materials should play,” says Dina Dedic.

 One of the advantages of paper is that often there are already good systems in place for collecting and recycling. Another is that it does not cause as much damage to marine ecosystems if leaks do occur, given that cellulose is already found there naturally.

“This can however become more complicated where paper contains other potentially damaging components, such as lacquers and printing ink. In the final analysis, it is a matter of understanding which alternative materials are best suited to various purposes given different handling systems – and steering the development of materials accordingly,” concludes Dina Dedic.

Bioeconomy

The field of bioeconomics gathers all economic contributions made by bio-based raw materials. The idea is that society should lean towards a bio-based platform and that this movement should permeate society. At RISE, researchers from different specialist fields collaborate on a range of projects, the common denominator being bioeconomics.

Read more about bioeconomy