#Conference #Coffee #Break #Blog: Solving plastic problem in fertilisers

SUSFERT inaugurates its #Conference #Coffee #Break Blog series.

The blog will showcase topics and chats in between Conference sessions and events that take place in the final year of the project.

It will feature people who have contributed to sustainable fertiliser topics and the expansion of the European circular, bio-based economy.

First up is SUSFERT’s Prof G, known as Georg Gübitz.

Ringing-in new era for bio-technology

Conference psychology & fundamentals are good. ACIB Director Business Development & Fundraising Martin Trinker & colleague ringing in the bells to open the sessions after the breaks at ESIB. ESIB/Martin Benedikt (c).

The SUSFERT team responsible for communication, dissemination and result exploitation grabbed a coffee with Professor Gübitz at the 11thInternational Conference on Fiber and Polymer Biotechnology (IFPB ) in Graz, Austria, November, 2022. We had lots to talk about. The IFPB is held on the sidelines of the European Summit of Industrial Biotechnology (ESIB).

Professor Gübitz speaking at the International Conference on Fiber and Polymer Biotechnology (IFPB). Photo courtesy ESIB/Martin Benedikt (c).

Prof Gübitz hosted the IFPB highlighting research and impacts in non-fossil based polymer and fibre biotechnology.

Finding new ways to coat fertilisers should address the global plastic problem in agriculture.

SUSFERT is developing a non-fossil coating solution from wood-based side-streams.

Developing bio-based alternatives to fossil coatings means addressing challenges of bio-refinery value chain.

What is Prof Gübitz’s contribution to bio-economy?

Professor Georg Gübitz is Head of the Department of Agrobiotechnology, IFA-Tulln,  at the University of Natural Resources and Life Sciences (BOKU) Vienna.

He holds the Chair of the IFPB and is on the Organising Scientific Committee of the Conference that started in 2000 in Portugal.

The IFPB has had 10 meetings that have been held in Europe, China, Korea, Japan, the US and even Brazil, with an initial focus on bio-based fibres.

The scope of the IFPB Conference has expanded beyond fibres to include polymer bio-technology in search of bio-based and bio-degradable coatings for many uses, including in agriculture.

Polymer inclusion into the Conference was due to the mounting, global plastic problem.

Enabling bio-refinery chains to meet Green Deal goals

Enabling new bio-refinery chains to deliver non-fossil alternatives to fibres and plastics will require scientific and technical expertise, investment, and a willingness of industry to participate in the European circular-economy. Establishing these new value chains is essential to achieve the climate-neutral goals of the EU Green Deal, climate treaties and various European strategies, some of which become enshrined in EU law.

The EU Green Deal aiming for Europe to become climate-neutral by 2050. Photo ESIB/Martin Benedikt ©.

Quick brief on plastics:

Massive micro-plastic problem in environment

Micro-plastic problem in agriculture reaches “alarming” levels.

A worrying story broke in June 2022 based on a UK scientific paper which revealed, in an estimation, that from the “8 million to 10 million tonnes of sewage sludge” generated in the UK each year, around “40% (is) sent to farmland”, which has caused “a similar concentration of microplastics (as) in ocean surface waters”. Sludge that is recycled from municipal sewage is spread on agricultural land as a sustainable fertiliser resource containing nitrogen and phosphorous, amongst other things. More detailed information on this topic can be read on the World Economic Forum news feed.

“At present, there is currently no European legislation that limits or controls microplastic input into recycled sewage sludge based on the loads and toxicity of microplastic exposure,” the WEF Forum article says.

The United Nations Environment Programme responded with a Foresight Brief in October, 2022. The author of the report, Professor Elaine Baker from the University of Sydney, said because fossil-based plastic is cheap and easy to work with, it is hard to sell other alternatives.

She added that “governments need to ‘disincentivize’ the use of agricultural plastics, following the path of the European Union, which earlier this year (2022) restricted certain types of polymers from being used in fertilizer”.

People are aware of the micro-plastic problem in the ocean, but perhaps not so aware about their presence in agriculture.

Already in 2017, the European Commission requested the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA)  to assess the micro-plastic situation and provide its findings for wider EU regulation.

This led to the Draft EU regulation dealing with synthetic polymer micro-particles that was discussed with EU Member States in the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) Committee on 23 September, 2022.

ECHA has a good summary on the key issues and milestones surrounding this topic.

Fertilizers Europe details the how this legislation will affect fertilisers.

Say ‘No’ to fossil-based plastic turf pitches!

We must act now

ECHA said that each year “around 42 000 tonnes of microplastics end up in the environment when products containing them are used”.  They added that the “largest single source of pollution is the granular infill material used on artificial turf pitches, with releases of up to 16 000 tonnes (of microplastics)”.

Reducing plastic coatings on sports’ pitches is one of the key areas that the EU legislation is targeting.

SUSFERT addressed the turf pitch problem by conducting grass field trials using wood-based enzymatic coatings and natural plasticisers. The scientific paper examined the need to find alternatives to fossil-based fertiliser coatings in developing bio-degradable coatings using natural plasticisers such as glycerol, xylitol and sorbitol because of microplastics contaminating the food chain.

BOKU has been working on developing new enzymatic processes for many years, especially examining how lignosulphonates from paper and pulp industry sidestreams can be used for new applications, such as fertiliser coatings. They have been working on the development of polymers from wood-based side-streams, particularly combining lignosulphonates from Sappi Gratkorn Mill with a laccase enzyme for fertiliser coatings.

The enzyme-based process that has been used to produce fertiliser coatings has many positive effects with one showing a big potential to reduce CO2emissions, SUSFERT previously reported. Lead author Renate Weiss speaks about the trials.

What is the answer to the plastic problem?


Sappi researchers adding laccase enzyme into the lignosulphonates at Gratkorn Mill, Austria. Photo: Sappi ©.

“It’s simple. Coatings and plastics for agriculture in general must be “bio&bio,” says Prof. Gübitz.

“That means that the starting materials should be from a bio-based origin, and end-product must be bio-degradable.”

Both are feasible, and the costs are reasonable when considering that nobody could ever pay for the cost for removing zillions of non-degradable and harmful micro-plastics particles from polluted soils, which act as a barrier to nutrient and water uptake.

Capturing renewable natural resources

SUSFERT Project Manager, Mikael Muegge, demonstrating the water-absorbing properties of project partner AgroBiogel’s wood-based hydrogels. SUSFERT is testing AgroBiogel’s Nutrigels in field trials. More can be read HERE.  Photo: ESIB/Martin Benedikt ©.

Professor Gübitz says that our greatest, current potential to use renewable materials for fertiliser development lies in our expanding expertise to process renewable resources into functional materials.

Also, we must ensure that the bio-degradation processes of the materials are in accordance with sustainability goals that do not damage the environment. Furthermore, the innovative bio-based products need to be processed and utilised in a way that functions well from a scientific, chemical, biotechnology and engineering viewpoint, as well as from a supply, proximity viewpoint.

Is the renewable side-stream, or secondary stream close to the other actors in the value chain because transport has both a financial cost and an environment footprint? So, the infrastructure needs to be there, or built, so that the value chain functions.

“In addition, every fertiliser has a coating that traditionally is made from fossil fuels that leave non-biodegradable plastic residues in the soil. I think that when we talk about bio-plastics which are used in fertiliser coatings, or sustainable products generally, we always must consider both parts in terms of the origin of the material in the first place, but also the fate of the material in the environment, after it is used for a particular application.

I think that this combined expertise and work carried out at BOKU’s Institute of Environmental Biotechnology is quite unique in that we are focusing on both these areas, he said.

“In my opinion, in relation to BOKU’s contribution, the very exciting material on SUSFERT is the lignin-based coatings that we have developed. These materials are fully bio-based, and they are derived from a side-stream product from the Sappi pulp and paper mill in Gratkorn, Austria.” More can be read about what Sappi is doing HERE.

Professor Georg Gübitz is enthusiastic about the soil improvers being developed on SUSFERT. Photo: RTDS ©

“From the lignin that is currently burned for processing and energy supply, only about two per cent out of every 1.0 million tonnes of lignin is actually utilised in terms of value-added products.”

There is a lot of potential to use this side-stream for other uses, such as in agriculture, for example, in maintaining the health of soil. The lignin is beneficial to the soil quality and can be used as soil improvers, or to retain moisture for arid conditions. It also has further uses in other industrial settings, for example in paints, glues and binders and even packaging.

“There are quite a few wood-processing companies that we are working with which are extremely interested in boosting their sustainable goals by upgrading their raw materials to find new applications for products,” he said.

“While industry is primarily interested in extracting the cellulose for paper, or for fibres and textiles, there is a large proportion of the under-utilised lignin that remains that should be used for higher value products if we are to meet the goals of the EU Green Deal. To not use this valuable side-stream would be counter-intuitive and wasteful. We are only at the beginning of this value creation stream.”

It is clear that there are solutions to alternative coatings, including fertilisers, but achieving a well-functioning bio-refinery value chain is more complex.

Bio-refinery more complex than oil-refinery

Developing novel fertilisers, coatings and soil improvers for the bio-based economy is challenging.

Unlike the traditional fossil-based economy that has fewer, established players along the refinery/product value chain, we can safely say that establishing sustainable, bio-based economy value chains in bio-refinery environments are more complex, says Professor Gübitz.

Finding new biomaterials to convert (or refine) biomass into either fuel, energy or chemicals for bio-based products require innovations from multiple stakeholders within common-interest sectors to establish new value chains that are considered unconventional at this present time. For the bio-refinery value chain to function properly, all parts of the chain need to be addressed.

Additionally, the companies involved in refining processes need to make strategic decisions as to what they will recover primarily. Will it be energy, water and/or chemicals, or even other substances? Ultimately, zero waste should be pursued if society wants to achieve true sustainability.

Bio-refinery value chain needs multiple actors on one train

Gübitz says that from a technical point of view, some of the products on SUSFERT, like the soil improvers, are quite convincing so far. But if you want to implement what we know across the business and public sectors, and make a successful business case out of it, you need to have all the actors in one train at the same time — the providers of the material, the processing and refining companies, and also the companies selling the product, knowing that there is a market for it. He says the challenge in the bio-refinery environment is that you need to create a business case for all the various stakeholders, individually.

Along the bio-refinery value chain, around four to five business cases need to fit together and correspond to the interests of all these players along the value chain at the same time. This is when we have an impact.

But this is special to the bio-refinery sector, the complexity. So, the actors need to be in different carriages, but they should all be on that one train heading in the same direction.

Conversely, in the crude oil refinery you are dealing, mostly, with one big oil company processing the various products in the refinery from the relatively uniform raw material and selling the products through well-defined distribution chains.

So, for SUSFERT the challenge at this juncture is that the bio-based economy has more actors in the value chain due to the need for a much more complex biorefinery.

This complexity arises out of the intricate essence of the materials that are derived from nature that need to be processed and recovered.

Many of these actors are establishing new relationships as chain reliance is created. At the same time, they must all make a profit, so that everything functions smoothly.

Ultimate question:

How far to commercialisation — SUSFERT has a TRL of 7-8?

Future generations will help shape the emerging bio-economy. They will also have to deal with the decisions we make today. Photo: ESIB/Martin Benedikt ©

“I think we are not that far away because the project partners in SUSFERT are already showing that we can produce the lignosulphonates based coatings in large amounts. We have already set up some pilot reactors together with some start-up companies, so that’s feasible. This process is scalable and most of the application shows us that it works,” he says.

“From the cost perspective of having a product that is competitive, it is necessary to use raw materials or side-streams that are currently under exploited and abundant, like lignin. Choosing your starting material is crucial — it should be abundant, so that the product is price competitive at the end of the value chain once all the bio-modifications have taken place”.

“If you would take all the initiatives currently being researched in this area, and you bring them to commercialisation, you would find that we have many of the solutions already in place. From the technical point-of-view there are many benefits for everybody in the project.”

“These collaborative European projects are important because of the way in which innovation leaps take place. The fact that many actors in a value chain can collaborate, test and trial better, sustainable products together have an enormous benefit.”

“If it works within the project, the likelihood of furthering those results by creating a commercial product, and even a relationship between the value chain actors for further collaboration, are much higher,” Gübitz concluded.

End of Conference: After two day’s of hosting, presenting, talking, eating, coffee breaks and visiting a wide-array of cutting-edge biotechnology stands, Professor Gübitz enjoys a well-deserved drink with a research fellow and one of his PhD students, Felice Quartinello, who is sure to make a big impact on the UPLIFT project. Photo: ESIB/Martin Benedikt ©.