Originally published at by IL BIOECONOMISTA, THE FIRST BIOECONOMY BLOG
Interview by Mario Bonaccorso
Thomas Philipon is the CEO of TotalEnergies Corbion, a global leader in the marketing, sales and production of PLA (Poly Lactic Acid). He is also the Most Innovative Bioeconomy CEO 2023 according to the readers of Il Bioeconomista. In this exclusive interview with us, Philipon talks about the meaning of innovation in the bioeconomy, the role played by TotalEnergies Corbion and above all the European legislative framework to support the ecological transition, in comparison with USA and China. “Europe – he states – is leading in the bioeconomy, but needs to support sectors like bioplastics, otherwise the risk is that we develop the know-how, but other areas of the world (USA and China), will scale up the production of these products”.
Mr Philipon, congratulations on the recognition as the most innovative bioeconomy CEO 2023. What is innovation in the bioeconomy, from your point of view?
Thanks to your readers for this recognition. I am very proud to be in that list. I was looking at the names of the winners of the past editions and I am really flattered to be one of them. As far as TotalEnergies Corbion is concerned, innovation is synonymous of collaboration. We are very proud to have created a strong collaboration with the value chain in order to achieve a positive eco-system for the bioplastics. Our business starts by understanding the needs of our consumers and by creating possible solutions. We are also proud to participate in the debate in creating the best legislation on environment to drive sustainable solutions.
And what is the innovation achieved by TotalEnergies Corbion?
When we talk about innovation, it’s a continuous cycle. On one hand it means promoting the solutions we have developed in the last years. TotalEnergies Corbion has grown the range of applications that can use PLA. On the other hand, we continue to push the PLA application frontiers.
We are already present in many different segments such as flexible packaging and food service ware, but also durable goods, nonwovens and 3D printing. We want to evolve and offer new solutions because we have more customers that are interested in reducing their carbon footprint, using bioplastics.
We are now proposing solutions with different end of life: PLA is a compostable bioplastics and can be also recycled. Recycled PLA has the potential to keep longer the carbon captured from the atmosphere when producing PLA. In this way we support our customers to become carbon neutral.
The production of biobased Luminy PLA has a 75% reduced carbon footprint vs petro-chemical based incumbent alternatives. In addition, depending on the end of life you have further positive impact. Our peer reviewed LCA analyses contains a more detailed overview of the global warming potential and how Luminy PLA performs in other environmental impact categories, such as carbon footprint, water usage and direct land use change. Also, we have just published the Life Cycle Assessment for advanced recycled PLA, or rPLA.
Bioplastics seems not to be so popular in the European Union nowadays. What is your opinion on the European legislative framework? What are today the main weaknesses of Europe in comparison with USA and China?
It is a very topical question. The bioplastics industry, in comparison with the plastics industry, is still a nascent economy, an emerging technology. If we consider the history of polymers, we are pretty much new, a new kid on the block. This means we need to be super careful about the rules we are putting together to avoid stopping the development of this new technology.
The legislative environment is very important to us. We spend a lot of time to understand the needs of our customers. And we spend as much time working on equipping the debate on bioplastics and the legislators with facts to ensure they put together sound sustainable solutions.
In Europe unfortunately there is no clarity. If we saw support with the famous and successful plastic bag directive in 2015, we did not see it with the Single Use Plastics Directive in 2019. Moreover, today the European Commission is at a crossroad when it comes to bioplastics, and it needs to tell us where they intend to go. There were in the past good steps in the regulatory framework supporting bioplastics, but now if we look at different proposal drafts, such as the PPWR regulation, all is unclear. The main weakness in the EU is the lack of clarity in the legislation and the bundle of bioplastics with traditional polymers.
In Europe we have different models, which is good, so we can learn from the different country settings and experiences. The implementation in different regions at different paces makes it very complex to implement the legislation. But that also gives us opportunities to explore success examples, such as is the case in Italy.
South Korea is another country that explores the benefits that bioplastics can bring to their economy. The world can learn from these successful examples and take advantage of these experiences. The competition between the USA and China is huge, because they are investing a lot of money and have stable and coherent regulatory frameworks. Europe risks losing the bioeconomy leadership due to the legislative unclarity – as already mentioned.
Your company stopped its investment in the new plant in France. Your next steps in 2024?
We do believe in the growth of bioplastics and specifically of PLA. We will continue to invest in our capacity and in our research & innovation. We will accelerate also by investing in human resources. We are a global company, which means we will invest where the conditions are the best for our business.
What does it mean for you to be voted the most innovative CEO?
This is a great recognition, which I consider as a recognition for all our company, for our team’s work, for our customers and partners. Together we are working to give an alternative to fossil-based plastics.
Personally, I feel very proud, because it is a recognition of a business model. What we want to do is changing the polymer game and lead the way towards a sustainable future.
What are your expectations related to the new European Commission, which will be nominated after the election of the new European Parliament?
Let me summarize my expectations in three words: clarity, speed (of execution) and actions. If we don’t have these three things, we, as Europeans, are going to lose our competitivity and our leadership.
We followed with great attention President Von der Leyen’s State of the Union in September and we welcome the idea of having an EU Biotech and Biomanufacturing Initiative. Europe is leading in the bioeconomy, but needs to support sectors like bioplastics, otherwise the risk is that we develop the know-how, but other areas of the world (USA and China), will scale up the production of these products. We cannot afford to be a fancy lab and give away our excellence to the rest of the world.
We need infrastructure, a new system to support the demand of bioproducts, such as the Biopreferred program in the US. And we need to team-up because we must feel ourselves more and more as Europeans. There is no good future for the European countries beyond the Union.
What measures do you consider urgent for the growth of the bio-based economy in the European Union?
We do not need to re-invent the wheel. The European Union is legally bound by the Climate Law to reach climate neutrality by 2050 and deliver negative emissions from that year on. In its Communication on Sustainable Carbon Cycles and the so-called Industrial Sustainable Carbon challenge, the European Commission sets an aspirational target that “at least 20% of the carbon used in the chemical and plastic products should be from sustainable non-fossil sources by 2030”.
This is positive but we need a legislative framework around it. How do we make it happen? It’s really time to have a level playing field between bio-based products and existing fossil solutions. Let’s take the PPWR as an example: it is good to have a specific list of uses and applications that need to be composted. However, this is a closed list that excludes all the potential innovation.
If we move in the right direction and put in place the right instruments, Europe could become leader in the bioplastics production. It needs to choose which way it wants to go. The PPWR will be an important instrument for the future of the bio-based economy.
Finally, we believe labeling is critical. And we support clarity for LCA rules to enable a speedy implementation of a circular and climate friendly economy.
Let’s continue to act together and innovate together to make the circular bioeconomy happen.