Biocomposites: The changing spectrum of a sustainable future

Over the last two decades, the climate justice discourse has had a steady growth of followers by way of influencers and experts. Many have sounded the clarion call to shift gears from the use of fossil fuel-based resources and move to greener technologies.

During this time, something critical changed: the pendulum swung from the lone voices of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), European business standards, and the reorientation of policy everywhere to encourage the shift to green resources to an end-user and consumer demand for more sustainable products. This was a paradigm shift, and one could surmise was the single biggest motivator for industrial giants, manufacturers, and producers to switch up their production processes to incorporate greener systems in doing business. This was an astounding example of how the market forces were inverted: customer demand led supply chains to more sustainable options. Mindful consumption began to inform and transform industry standards. Greener products were seen as more profitable, as well as sustainable for the earth despite ESG reporting not being compulsory for business reporting. The market began to adapt and adopt a consumer-led revolution in sustainable consumption. In turn, it also led to industries going back to the drawing board to innovate technologies that would recalibrate production processes to fit the new normal. Biocomposites were engineered and birthed in this exciting climate of revolutionary material sciences.

Biocomposites comprise the amalgamation of a natural fiber with a polymer. The polymer used can be naturally sourced or artificial. This technology led to the reduction in the use of fossil resources and thereby the environmental footprint. Biocomposites primarily reduce carbon footprint and dependency on fossil resources. However, the dilemma for cleaning up after use follows the plastics products. While biocomposites were utilized initially in the construction and furniture industries, today they have been incorporated into many more industries. By application, at present, bio-composites are being utilized in the construction, automotive, consumer goods, packaging, medical, and other industries such as the marine and transportation industries.

There are some minor disadvantages researchers have discovered, which make biocomposites non-conducive in extreme weather and certain environmental conditions. Natural fibers are hydrophilic because they are composed of hydroxyl groups, thereby increasing their moisture sensitivity. This results in poor interfacial adhesion between the fiber and the matrix. However, life cycle assessments and environmental assessments still support the development of bio-composites and their rapid enhancement for more prevalent use.

The benefits of biocomposites, however, far outweigh their minimal disadvantages. They are sourced from abundantly available renewable resources and eco-efficient sources; they are sustainable; they employ green chemistry, and they can be added to innovation and technology advancements. For example, crop residue is used in the development of biocomposites, which in turn encourages the circular economy. While synthetic fibers are expensive and not eco-friendly, bio-fibers are currently replacing the former. Apart from being sustainable and renewable, they are also lightweight, non-abrasive, sometimes biodegradable, economical to produce, and eco-friendly overall. Therefore, with biocomposites, the future is starting to look bright again for generations to come.