Consumers often lack a full understanding of the term “bio based”. They often have lots of questions when they come across biobased products. This is the conclusion of a Wageningen UR study into people’s perceptions of biobased products across Europe. The study is part of the large-scale European research programme Open-Bio.
Prior to conducting a quantitative survey, LEI Wageningen UR focus groups have been organized among 107 consumers in six European countries: Denmark, the Czech Republic, Slovenia, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands. According to Wageningen UR scientist Marieke Meeusen, there were very few differences between the perceptions of consumers in these countries. “We noticed that a large group of consumers did not quite know the term and they do not understand the concept”. They made associations with several items, among others biotechnology, organic farming or degradability. Others associated the term biobased primarily with the environment or, in an even broader sense, sustainability. The fact that biobased refers to products made from renewable raw materials seemed to be virtually unknown.”
The respondents were presented with a number of very different biobased products. Discussion about those products made clear that they judge individual biobased products on their specific strengths and shortcomings. Biobased bags, for instance, were considered very different from biobased products such as clothing, paint or dashboards. The different properties of products also raised questions, Meeusen noted: “For instance, we showed the respondents a biobased shopping bag which can be composted. Some people took that to mean that the bag can simply be thrown away anywhere. Moreover, many thought that compostability applies to all biobased products, including paving stones – they asked if the sidewalk would disintegrate in five years.”
It is clear that people want to hear a consistent story, Meeusen says. “All aspects of sustainability must be correct: both environmental and social features, climate impact as well as waste. People also expect all activities in the production chain to be in order.”
Need for clarity
It appears that consumers have a need for clarity so would a distinctive biobased label help? Meeusen doubts it. “The question is whether this would make consumers happy or simply confuse them. Instead, you could imagine biobased to be one of the requirements for the granting of an eco-label. At any rate, in order to boost consumer enthusiasm for biobased products, it should be clear what biobased means for consumers.”
Functionality of biobased products
As there are various biobased products available, claims by manufacturers must be true. With this in mind, Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research is investigating within Open-Bio the functionality of a broad range of biobased products. Scientist Karin Molenveld explains: “Some standards are outdated. The standards for insulation materials, for instance, were set up in a time when the only materials available were made from mineral or fossil raw materials, such as rock wool. Biobased alternatives can have functional properties that are at least as good and yet they often score badly in the current functionality tests as their additional beneficial properties – such as breathability and moisture management properties – are not included in the existing standards. These kinds of barriers discourage many companies from investing in this field.”
Need for more research
There is a considerable need for this kind of research, says Maarten van der Zee from Food & Biobased Research. “We get a lot of questions about the functionality of biobased products. For instance, material producers sometimes tell us that recycling companies refuse to process biobased products because they allegedly would reduce the quality of the recycling stream. We then investigate how things really stand. This involves, for instance, looking at what happens with biobased or compostable packaging during the entire process, i.e. how it behaves from the moment it enters the sorting system, and analysing what its real impact is on the quality of the recycling stream.”
By developing clear standards for biobased products, Wageningen UR is contributing to their recognisability. This gives businesses, governments and consumers better insights, and helps remove many obstacles.
Find more information on the Open-Bio research on our website or contact our experts.
Dr.ir. M (Maarten) van der Zee
Senior scientist – project manager
ir. MJG (Marieke) Meeusen-van Onna