B4Plastics - A whole new meaning to the notion of ghost gear

FOUNDED IN 2020 - BASED IN BELGIUM - PRIVATE COMPANY 6 minutes read

Addressing the massive problem of plastic pollution in our oceans and food chains, B4Plastics designs biodegradable fishing equipment made of novel BioBased Building Blocks (B4). Their concept is radical: it sets an expiration date to plastic’s most praised AND decried feature: durability. Not only does B4Plastics program gear lifespan, but it also speeds up biodegradation after that best-before date. They are developing their innovative polymer architecture within the framework of the EU-funded GLAUKOS project.

Challenge: A plastic-free fishing ground

Oceans are home to half of the earth’s biomass and 15% of our protein intake. When sourcing this food, the fishing industry tosses or loses loads of plastic-based fishing equipment overboard – up to 1 million tons every year, in fact. This abandoned, lost or otherwise discarded fishing gear (ALDFG) leads to disastrous consequences for marine life, food production, and human health. As seafood production is expected to double by 2050, fostering a fossil-fuel-free fishing ground is of the essence.

Prizewinner 2021

“Tiny pieces of microplastics eventually enter our food chain through marine plankton, sneaking their way into the fish on our plates and causing health risks to both fish and people.”

 

Marine litter is deadly. Fishing gear and other plastic materials entangle marine animals, asphyxiate coral reefs, destroy mangroves and degrade many more ecosystems. Over time, all that plastic fragments and turns into microplastics so minuscule they are often imperceptive to the naked eye. The tiny pieces eventually enter our food chain through marine plankton, sneaking their way into the fish on our plates and causing health risks to both fish and people.

Microplastics can indeed act as vectors for bacteria, viruses, heavy metals, and toxins. A scientific study from 2019 posits that the average American ingests between 39,000 and 52,000 microplastic particles yearly, with potential negative impacts on human health: from endocrine disruption to cancer. Equally worrying, microplastics reduce the growth and survival of fish and shellfish, depriving coastal communities of their livelihoods.

Fishing gear accounts for 46% of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch Photo cred: The Ocean Cleanup

While Ocean cleanups offer a solution to the present pollution, biodegradable fishing equipment would prevent future ghost gears – dropping lines, traps, and nets drifting across seas long after use. It will sustainably end the fishing industry’s plastic leakage into our oceans and plates. And down the line, the technology could have other applications on land, including replacing fossil-based mulches that pollute soils.

Initiative: B4Plastics gives a whole new meaning to the notion of ghost gear

Founder Stefaan De Wildeman established B4Plastics in 2014 because, by his own admission, plastic was infesting his life. The biochemist first devoted time to developing a biodegradable alternative to single-use plastic straws. And he succeeded. In 2020, with several other products in its catalog, the Belgian company joined European Commission-funded research and innovation project GLAUKOS.

The Project, named after the Greek sea god of fishers, aims to drastically reduce plastic waste in the ocean, focusing on two key polluters: fishing gear and clothing. And success is, once again, within reach!

“In sum, to create fishing gear with an expiration date. It’s an unprecedented concept.”

B4Plastics uses polymer architecture technology to build environmentally sustainable yet robust equipment. Its niche? To design strong plastic that weaken in strength over time and control degradation. In sum, to create fishing gear with an expiration date. It’s an unprecedented concept.

The materials the Flanders-based scaleup uses resemble teeny-tiny biological “Lego blocks,” called BioBased Building Blocks. They can be combined in different ways to construct polymer materials with diverse properties.

Each rope of the fishing net consists of 2 layers. An external coating protects the inner core from contact abrasion and deterioration due to UV light. It’s designed to withstand a set amount of wear and tear, after which it will start to break down. Its durability’s lifespan is currently set at two years, but the Belgian company can sink it down to 3 months or bring it back up to 10 years. And laboratory test results already indicate comparable performance strength to classic polyamide (PA6) and greater robustness than current bio-alternatives.

Beyond the exceptional material properties, a clear expiration date can also bring about behavioral change and encourage the timely replacement of fishing gear. But suppose a piece of equipment still ends up in the ocean after two years of usage, large sea creatures unintentionally captured in nets can liberate themselves, as the tensile strength of the fishing gear decreases in aquatic environments. Another benefit for biodiversity is that once exposed, the inner core will start to deteriorate and biodegrade until complete mineralization. This vanishing act gives a whole new meaning to the notion of ghost nets

Key facts

  • Finalist: B4Plastics – GLAUKOS project
  • Type of organization: Private company
  • Year of establishment: 2014. The GLAUKOS project started in 2020
  • Headquarters: Flanders, Belgium
  • Founder: Stefaan De Wildeman
  • Number of staff: 15
  • The big idea: Biodegradable fishing equipment to reduce plastic waste and microplastics in the oceans.
  • Goal: Gears that biodegrade in 6 weeks, after 2 years of use. To pave the way for a shift from fossil-based plastics to recyclable and degradable materials in textiles and fishing gear.

The secret behind the magic trick

B4Plastics introduces cleavable linkages in the polymer structure that can be severed in nature by microorganisms or enzymes to achieve this magic trick. Therefore, their plastic can biodegrade naturally – leaving zero microplastics in the food chain – in record time.

“A key component of GLAUKOS fishing gear is a polymer design that does not fragment into microplastics but instead breaks down into mineral compounds and virtually disappears.”

 

Six weeks is the ambition – a very high one. But if unattained and De Wildeman’s team can only cut degradation time down to six months, it would still be a significant achievement since it would still be a significant achievement since it’d take conventional fishing lines up to 6 centuries to degrade.

A local bioeconomy

The natural raw ingredients used to produce this sustainable fishing gear are also crucial to GLAUKOS plastic’s biodegradability. The polymers are built from beetroot sugar, rapeseed acids, and molasses. Already moving away from fossil fuel, the Project takes sustainability a step further as it sources 70% of the weight of the used B4 in Benelux, France, Italy, and Germany. Furthermore, they plan is to purchase the remaining 30% of the biomass from European countries within 2-3 years. This would make GLAUKOS the most local fishing gear, with a great potential to reduce the fishing industry’s logistic and carbon footprint. B4Plastics is also developing alternatives for American markets relying on typical regional biomass such as sugarcane and castor bean.

“The most local fishing gear, with a great potential to reduce the fishing industry’s logistic and carbon footprint”

 

How much would it cost? The fishing gear will be sold at a limited premium price, approximately 20% more expensive than conventional gear. But B4Plastics estimates that prices of fossil materials and the willingness to pay more for sustainable material will rise soon enough.

The time is to scale tests, and production is now!

In the face of ravaging consequences such as biodiversity losses, it’s urgent to mitigate ALDFG. To speed up tests, B4Plastics opened a second fully equipped lab in June 2021. The company is currently finetuning and testing the composition of their outer coatings that will consist of fatty acids and amino acids. It also evaluates the degradation speeds of the inner core, assessing the toxicity of the intermediate breakdown products and analyzing end-products such as biogas and biomass, and monitors under which conditions and in what habitats degradation happens.

“B4Plastics plans to deploy real-life aquatic condition tests as of 2022 and move to a ton-scale production before 2025.”

 

Once lab tests are conclusive, the new fishing gear will be tested throughout Europe and Turkey by GLAUKOS partners, before quickly bringing the product into waters worldwide.

They plan to deploy real-life aquatic condition tests in 2022 and move to a ton-scale production before 2025.

Next step? Going terrestrial! After drinking straws and fishing gear, Founder De Wildeman explores additional gateways to eliminate microplastics in the food chain. He researches best-balanced polymeric materials to reduce pollution on land and other applications.

Potential shortcomings

B4Plastics still needs to address a couple of pragmatic issues. First, the company aims to tailor its products to the environments where the gear will be used. Keeping track of these differences across fleets and users can proof difficult and expensive in a highly diversified market. Second, the scaleup also indicates that it will offer inspection and reparation services when gears are damaged to prevent inner fibers from starting to biodegrade prior the expiration date. Consequently, there will be two expiration dates – that of the original coating and that of the new one. This is also an additional cost that’s not required with traditional gear.

What would B4Plastics do with the Prize sum?

Firstly, the Food Planet Prize funds would boost the GLAUKOS project as an R&D platform, accelerating the prototyping and validation of new fishing gear. It would allow research teams to take shortcuts and learn faster, beyond the already ambitious project plan. The sum would also fuel their communications and marketing work to accelerate the adoption of GLAUKOS in the fishing industry.

Beyond oceans, the award could enable B4Plastics to address the plastic pollution on the land, too: from horticultural twines for greenhouses to bale twine to wrap animal feed and geotextiles to mulch crops. They even anticipate successfully developing mulch films with fast biodegradation upon harvest once they reach a better economy of scale with the above applications.

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