Season 2

Episode 16. Microalgae and Bioplastics ft. Dr. Jean-Francois Sassi

Episode 15 Episodes list Episode 17

In this episode, Niko and Beatrice continue their conversation to Dr. Jean-Francois Sassi, international expert and R&D manager at the Algae Processes and Technologies at CEA (French Alternative Energies and Atomic Energy Commission).
They deep dive into the topic of plastics, discussing the move away from single-use plastics, the efforts to decrease the amount of non-degradable plastic in the environment, and why not all petrol-based plastics can be substituted by bioplastics.
Jean-Francois illuminates the ways, in which microalgae can be used to build a more sustainable future, making plastics bio-based, bio-produced, biodegradable, and natural.

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Beatrice: Hi, everyone! It’s Bea and Niko again with part 2 of the podcast with Jean-Francois. In our previous podcast, we covered in detail the uses of algae in research. In this podcast, we will go into detail how algae are being used in bioplastics. We also dive into the differences between bioplastics and petro-based plastics. So let’s get started!

Niko: Okay, so one thing that you were mentioning before is upscaling production and that that is quite difficult so I was just wondering, so far it seems the processes, as you’ve described, rely on already existing large-scale production. For example, with the starch where people are already producing this in large quantities. So I just wanted to ask you if you’re also trying to bring newer plastics that you’re developing and upscaling those?

Jean-Francois: We try to connect to the existing biorefinery schemes. The industry doesn’t want to change its tools and plants. So it’s true for the fractionation of the biomass, is true also for the transformation, for instance, of the material. You should consider the way plastics are manufactured and moulded, for instance. People want to use the same machines, they don’t want to change the machines to adapt to new generations of plastics. So this is something that you have to consider and to take into account during the development. It’s not only a matter of bringing new plastics, you have to bring plastics that are affordable and that are amenable to existing systems. The way we innovate, I would say, in the steps that are not related to conversion, fractionation, and transformation, we innovate in systems that are used to grow the biomass because this is something, which is not totally linked and totally correlated with the downstream processing. So this is where we can innovate the systems, the photobioreactors, also with the way we manage the photobioreactors, in order to to to bring more automation and monitoring in the system. Because currently the algae industry asks for lots of expertise and a lot of manpower because usually these are small systems and small companies so there is a lot of knowledge and know-how but there are no real industrial processes compared to other fields of industry. Consider the way the chemical plants or the fermentational biochemical plants are conducted. This is very far from the practices that are involved currently into microalgae industry. This is where there is the level of innovation, I would say. Transfer, apply knowledge from other fields of industry in order to get a bit of control of the process, in order to also to improve the tools that are used to grow the algae.

B: And so the polymers that are produced from algae, are they biodegradable? And how are they broken down?

JF: All the biopolymers that are produced from microalgae are biodegradable. They are natural. They are built by enzymes that are contained in the microalgae but they can also be broken down by the similar enzymes or by the enzymes that are contained in other organisms. So this is totally biodegradable, this is bio-based , bio-produced, and biodegradable. And also, this is natural, and this is very important if you consider the way the legislations in Europe on single-use plastics is moving. Single-use plastics are not allowed anymore unless they are based on natural polymers. And in this case, the only natural polymers that you have in the basket are starch, cellulose, chitin, proteins from living organisms. polyesters from bacteria, and that’s all. Nothing else is allowed. So people have decided to move from plastic to paper, for instance, for wrapping things. People have decided to move from plastics to woods for making single-use cutlery. But there are also some options to make still plastic systems but based on natural polymers. And this is the time to develop this type of thing because the legislations have changed in Europe so there is a real need on the markets to bring solutions for this. Because I don’t know if you have already tested wood-made single-use cutlery but it is not very comfortable when you eat something, it is always quite trash, so you need this type of plastic things but bio-based for these specific applications.

 I just wanted to quickly ask about the degradability of these bioplastics. Because, I mean, can I just put them into the biowaste? Like in the garden, where within a couple days it will just become earth like the waste from fruit and vegetables?

JF: So there are some standards for this and there are some specific films or moulded parts that are developed and that are adapted to the home compost standards. So there are different solutions, depending on the biopolymer that will be part of the resin and depending also on the way the formulation is made. You can have some things, which can be biodegraded directly in your garden or in your bin. Or something that will need to to be treated under industrial composting processes. Or something that will be totally durable, meaning that it will last for several years. So there are different scenarios and this is where all the science related to formulation and also to the way the plastic systems are made is. If you consider multi layers, for instance. There are different layers that are not degradable at the same extent or under the same kinetics so there are different solutions. But you can make home compost, for sure, starting from starch-based plastics or from the polyhydroxy alkaloids. They would degrade directly when transferred to the garden, it’s very simple. 

B: I mean, it definitely sounds like a great alternative to the plastic that we tend to use on a day-to-day basis, like polyethylene, which are really hard to degrade. But how does the cost compare? Of the production of the bioplastics made out of algae to making the polymer chemical way or non-bio way? And also the degradability? How does the cost compare? 

JF: The bio-based plastics currently are quite expensive so the first target is not to compete with the petro-based polymers, the first target is to compete with other bio-based polymers. And in this case, the bio-based polymers, they are between 5 and 7 Euros per kilo so this is a reasonable target for something based on the algae material.

B: And what’s the price of a petro-made chemical?

JF: Petrol-based are between 1 and 2 Euros per kilo. So they are clearly less expensive. They have also a specific advantage – they are recyclable. And biodegradable plastics are not recyclable. So this is a different end-of-life scenario: either you recycle but you are first to to collect and to sort and to separate, or you develop biodegradable things that are single-use. These are two different scenarios and I think both solutions need to be considered in order to solve the environmental problems. Recycling is also a very good solution. In this case, recycling petrol-based systems, or polyolefin-based on the natural resources, is a good option. 

B: Would we ever be able to recycle bioplastics? Is that possible or will it ever be possible?

JF:  If you incorporate into the definition of bioplastics the polyolefin, for instance, that would be produced from natural resources – bio polypropylene, bio polyethylene – in in this case, yes, we can recycle because the final polymer is the same as the petrol-based. 

B: Okay, but any bioplastic that needs the bacteria to break it down or an enzyme, those would never be able to be recyclable?

JF: Yes, it’s quite difficult because these are other polyesters or polysaccharides. So these are polymers that are not very stable to recooking, remelting, and then they need to be dry due to a very high extent in order to be reprocessed. So this is quite difficult to to reprocess. This is true also for other petrol-based polymers that are polycondensate, petro-based polyesters and petro-based polyamides, for instance. They have the hydrolytic stability problem. That is a problem for recycling. 

N: I mean. talking about recycling. is there some general way plastics are being recycled nowadays? Because you always hear about the amount of plastic waste being produced, the oceans being full of plastic waste, microplastics making their way into everything. So I’ve felt like there’s like no real lifecycle for plastics that feeds back into production so is this something that’s being developed?

JF: Yes, things are getting better. It’s a matter of education, it’s a matter of organization, also. It’s a matter of developing the sorting systems, sorting material. But things are getting better. If you considers waste processors, for instance: since some years, they are also plastic producers. And they produce several tens of thousands tons of plastics every year out of the waste that they collect. They collect different types of waste. They separate plastics, and they recycle, and, finally, they sell pellets again. And this has become a business for them so things are increasing, things are moving. The problem is, what ends up in the environment and what is disposed everywhere in fields, in the river, and that is not collected. This is a real problem here.

N: Okay, but then wouldn’t bioplastics be more of a solution to this? Because if they are also biodegradable even if they are left in the environment then they wouldn’t stay there forever?

JF: Yes, this is only part of the solution. Because bioplastics are notable to do everything. If you want to have some specific technical properties, you may need part of not biodegradable plastics. Formulating a whole part with biodegradable things, for instance, will not be adapted to wrapping food. You would need a barrier coating or this type of thing, and this will not be biodegradable. So there are some limits. You cannot do everything with biodegradable plastics because plastics need sometimes to be durable. And to have some very specific technical properties that you cannot so far attain with bio-based or biodegradable plastics, I would say.

B: So on the topic of properties, how do the properties of bioplastics differ from the properties of petro-based polymers or plastics? Can you achieve different properties? And if you take the exact same polymer just made in a different way, will it also have different properties or not?

JF: ideal target is to mimic the properties of the petro-based plastics and to have an end-of-life, which will be biodegration. This is what the industry started to develop with PLA (polylactic acid). PLA is quite durable. It’s quite good, technically speaking. And it can be biodegraded under industrial conditions. So it’s a nice idea, I would say, it’s a nice scheme. But It’s not totally adapted to the state of the society. Because PLA cannot be easily sorted and separated from the other plastics, for instance. And since PLA needs industrial composting, it’s quite difficult to define the bin where you will dispose of PLA. For instance, you cannot put it into the degradable garbage. You cannot put it into the plastic garbage can because it would not be separated upon sorting. So it was a nice idea at the beginning but there are some limits. I think, we will always need the polyolefins, for instance, the polypropylene, and the polyethylene. And we can move to bio-based polypropylene and bio based polyethylene, of course these will not be biodegradable but they can be recycled. 

N: So you don’t think that it will be ever possible to get a a substitution of every plastic that is not biodegradable? For example, working in a wet lab we use a lot of plastics. And they have to have the characteristic of not interacting with the the liquids and materials we pipe into them, of course. So I think they they need to have quite good properties. But you don’t think this will be possible, to substitute them all at some point?

JF: No, I don’t think so. I think we would still need them. And this is quite a good use of natural resources, of petrol or petroleum, to produce this type of plastics. As long as there is a good organization of collecting and sorting and recycling. This is where the main issue is. Regarding your question about microplastics, for instance. A lot has been done in order to decrease the amount of, for instance, plastic beads that used to be incorporated into cosmetics. This is not allowed anymore. So I think rather the amount of a non-biodegradable plastics that end up in the environment would decrease. 

N: That basically means that, through the legislation, a lot of the plastics that have been used before are now being either shifted or forbidden so that less plastic ends up in the environment, if I understand correctly?

JF: Yeah, that’s true. Of course, there are some limitations to this approach. If you consider the way we live today, with the disposable masks, for instance. All these are based based on polypropylene and polyethylene. And this is a single-use plastic but there is no other option today. So it’s a kind of bridge to the legislation because we shouldn’t use single-use masks in order to protect from COVID. But that’s a matter of emergency. 

B: So could we make masks out of bioplastics? 

JF: Yes, we can, of course. This is a very nice example of something that you can do with bioplastics. The problem is cost here and clearly the polymer is too costly to use at the moment. 

B: So how many, if we think percentage-wise, how much of the plastic that we use today is actually made a bioplastics?

JF: It’s a very small amount, it’s only a few percent, which is currently bio-based. But this small amount is increasing quite fast. So it is a small market that is expanding quite fast. It grows about 20 to 25 percent per year in Europe. So there is a real development of this type of thing but so far it’s a small part of the plastic. 

B: And the reason why it’s so small, it’s mainly due to the cost, right? Because it seems like the technology is advancing very quickly and a lot of it is already there. 

JF: it’s a matter of, I would say, age. It’s a young industry. It’s growing up and it needs time to grow up. It’s not like the petrol-based industry, which, I would say, is almost 100 years old. And there is a clear move in Europe, switching from the petrol-based industry to the bio-based industry also to the CO2-based economy. Because we don’t have a lot of fossil resources in Europe but we have a lot of CO2, as do all the people in the world. And this is a good option to start from CO2 to grow the biomass or to use directly CO2 in order to produce chemicals and materials. So there are a lot of projects currently in Europe both RnD and also industrial projects. 

N: So would you say that the European Parliament has recognized that this is something they need to invest in? That it’s important for the future and that they’re actually putting more funding into it in recent years, I guess? 

JF: Yes, there is more funding going there and they consider this as an opportunity. And not only Europe I mean, all of the continents and the new way the regulations are currently moving in Europe are opportunities. Also for the other areas in the world. There are, for instance, factories in America or in Asia that are the expanding because there is a need in Europe for this type of solutions. So the challenge here is to develop things in Europe, made in Europe, for the European markets. Because things are moving also everywhere in the world and then we may end up with a natural-based or CO2-based polymers that would be imported and no more industry in Europe. Which is not a good option. 

B: So currently, right now, when you buy something at the supermarket or you use plastic and it’s made from bioplastics, is there a sign that says it’s made out of bioplastics or is that still to come?

JF: There is no label for bioplastics. There are some labels for the end-of-life. For instance, you can have labels saying this is home compost agreed, for instance. Sometimes people add a sentence, that is free to add, that this plastic is made out of starch coming from potatoes. This type of thing but this is not mandatory. 

B: Do you think a lot of people are aware of the fact that there is a difference between the way we make plastics, bioplastics, and petrol plastics? Or do you think, in general, we still need to try to increase people’s awareness?

JF: I think the type of sentence that is written, for instance, on bags in the supermarkets, saying that these bags come from natural resources or this bag can be recycled or you can return this bag to the shop and we can recycle it for you. These are good options in order to increase the awareness. The problem is that there is no large advertising campaign. You don’t hear this type of message, for instance, in the media or on TV. But at least it’s written. You see this message buying things at the supermarkets. So there is a limited message. It could be increased in order to increase people’s awareness but it’s not totally nothing some message is there.

N: Okay so, basically, the advertisement is still missing and in order to actually get people to maybe invest more into this industry and also like, seeing its potential, as with the microalgae being really productive, people just need to know more about it.

JF: Yeah, I think the professional and the business are aware of the opportunities. And also aware of the regulations and the way European regulations are gradually changing. But the consumer is not too aware of this so the ban on single-use plastic, you can hear it maybe for several days in the news and then everything vanishes and you end up with no information. So there is no permanent message about these. 

B: And so the way to make bioplastics and the whole area of bioplastics. Is that big worldwide or would you say that the majority of the research is done in Europe?

JF: I think there is a lot of research and good research, which is mainly in Europe. But the research is also developing elsewhere in the world. And potentially also to answer the needs of the European markets. This is what I was saying when I said that there are some factories that are build also elsewhere. Because consider for instance the way the PLA industry expanded. The PLA industry expanded close to the areas where sugar feedstock is the most accessible, the most affordable. So this is where, for instance, sugar cane grows. So it can be in Brazil, can be in Asia, and these plastics end up on the European market. So innovation can start in otherr parts of the world in order to answer market needs that are focused in Europe because the regulations in Europe are moving faster with respect to everything related to biodegradation and environmentally friendly things. But I think yes, research in Europe is quite dynamic, for sure. It’s more a matter of having the good access to the right feedstock in order to develop industry. Because the lands in Europe are limited. It’s a highly populated region. It’s also that lands should be more devoted to growing food and feed. for people and not growing polymers for plastics. So this is where the seaweed and algae are the potential because these are under-exploited resources and under-exploited lands in Europe compared to other parts of the of the world.

N: Basically we need to change, to see CO2 not as a waste product but actually as a resource that we can use in Europe to produce new biomaterials?

JF: Yeah, true. You have to produce new crops and produce new biomaterials. For sure, yes.

B: My final question. So can you give us a prediction of like, in the next 10 years, how much will the use of bioplastics increase?

JF: I told you it is growing 20 percent per year. So you can make the calculation. If you consider the same increase, it’s really a big increase for an industry. Yeah, if you consider the way the food industry, for instance, expands worldwide, it grows 5 to 7 percent per year, not more. Whereas plastic industry grows 1 or 2 percent but the bioplastic industry grows more than 10-20 percent per year. So it’s growing 10 times faster than the usual industry. So I think 10 years from now, we would have hopefully several hundred thousands of tons of bioplastics produced and used in Europe. And that will be a big increase from the current situation. Because currently what we have, which is bio-based and biodegradable, produced in Europe, are only starch-based materials. Even the polyesters, the aliphatic polyesters are not made in Europe, they are produced in Asia, either polyalkaloids or polylactic acids are produced in other parts of the world so we don’t have any domestic industry with respect to these and we need to to develop this.

Okay. Yeah, that was all very very interesting. I definitely learned a lot. What about you, Niko?

N: Yeah, it was really nice to talk about this. Especially with sustainability becoming more and more relevant. Also the Max Planck society is planning to become more sustainable. Talking to our vice presidents. So yeah, I’m looking forward to seeing where this field will go.

B: Yeah, me too.

JF: They will need chemists, you know. It’s not only biology. You can keep on studying chemistry, there is a lot to do with chemistry.

B: That’s good, that’s good to know for me. 

JF: It is not the total vanishing of the chemical industry, it s only move to something bio-based, that’s all. 

B: Yes. Thank you so much for joining us today and for talking to us about this interesting and highly relevant topic. We really appreciate it.

JF: Thanks a lot for the invitation. I hope to see you soon, one time when we are free to travel to different parts of the world. 

N: That sounds great, yes. 

B: Maybe in a few years wearing out biodegradable masks, yeah. 

JF: Yeah, that’s the target.

B: Okay then maybe do you want to tell, I don’t know if you use LinkedIn in or use twitter, and you want to tell the audience where they can keep up-to-date with your research?

JF: Yeah, so I have a personal LinkedIn account under my name, where I post information about our research. And we have also a website, which is the website of the organization. So as I told you CEA is a large organization and CEA doesn’t stand only for algae but for different fields, so we are not very visible on the websites of CEA. So go to my LinkedIn profile, that would be better.

N: Okay, we will link all the things in the episode descriptions for the listeners to find.

JF: Yes, thanks for the conversation and have a good day and a good life!

B: That said, we really hope you enjoy the podcast with Jean as much as we did. We definitely learned a lot and we hope you do too. If you like our podcast, make sure to follow us on our twitter, LinkedIn, instagram pages, you will find us under our name. And make sure to follow Jean-Francois on LinkedIn to stay up-to-date with his research. You can find him under his name, Jean-Francois Sassi. Thank you so much again for listening. Offspring Magazine – the Podcast is brought to you by the Max Planck PhDnet‘s Science Communication Group, known as the Offspring Magazine. The Intro-Outro music is composed by Srinath Ramkumar and the Pre-Intro jingle is composed by Gustavo Carrizzo. If you have any feedback comments or suggestions, please feel free to write us at Until next week! Stay safe, stay healthy! Bye.
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