Interview Christiaan Bolck, Biobased Materials expert

Strawberry Earth Sustainable Mastermind Christiaan Bolck



Interview series for Strawberry Earth, called ‘Sustainable Masterminds’, with scientists, designers and other experts in sustainability and design.

Hi there! We’re back with number 2 from our new series Sustainable Masterminds. Get ready for an inspiring interview with Christiaan Bolck, program manager Biobased materials at Wageningen UR. He loves cycling and making the coolest types of plastics. His work focuses on researching and developing sustainable packaging, recycling and bio-based materials. You’ve surely seen or used some of his work; in the veggie aisle in the supermarket, in the office or at six miles high up in the air. Christiaan’s work literally flies allover the world. We found out that biobased materials are super smart and that some even smell like yummy candybars if you’d set them on fire. So, go get yourself a biodegradable cup of coffee and meet Christiaan.

Christiaan, how do you like you coffee? And by ‘how’ we obviously mean from what type of cup?
I am drinking my coffee from a biodegradable paper cup, coated with polylactic acid; a milk-acid.

Sweet! So sour milk and coffee mix well after all. Is it possible we’ve come across those cups ourselves?
Yes. When you’re flying KLM your coffee and tea is served in those cups and they’re also used in many government’s buildings.

What made you decide to dedicate your working life to biobased materials?
I wanted to work on ways to improve the world we live in instead of fighting the bad things. I love to work towards solutions. And even though I am a trained economist and used to work with figures and graphics, I prefer working with tangible materials and products for everyday life.

We dig your ‘always green never grumpy’ philosophy! What projects or products are you most proud of?
I enjoy developing tangible products the most, but of course I also enjoy the research programs, like the Bio Based Program. I’m very proud of the fact that Wageningen UR is able to execute such an amazing and big program. When it comes to tangible products, there are quite some pretty specific products we’ve helped develop. The aforementioned coffee cup is one. Another highlight is a tomato package that’s made of the tomato plant’s stems and leaves, so that’s a nice circle. For the company Océ we developed bio-plastic panels for the outside of their printers.

What’s the biggest misunderstanding people have about bioplastics?
It’s a misunderstanding that bioplastics – or officially, biobased plastics – are all biodegradable. We can make a perfectly bio-degradable product, made from petrol-based plastic. We can also make a plant based – that’s biobased – plastic that doesn’t easily biodegrade. The type of molecule determines to what extend micro-organisms present in nature can eat them.

Which ‘Sustainable Mastermind’ is inspiring you?
There are quite a lot of people and companies that inspire me. Especially people and companies that are willing to take risks and put themselves out there to develop new products and do things differently. In this respect I admire Jan Noordegraaf of Synbra and Aaik Rodenburg of Rodenburg Bioplastics.

Where can we enjoy your work live?
People are very welcome to visit Wageningen. Don’t expect guided bus tours, but you are invited walk around and visit some of the research projects that we’re working on. The campus is very lively and just great for hanging out.

You know a lot about plastic-eating micro-organisms as well. Would you know how to use bacterias for solving the plastic soup problem?
For ‘eating’ the plastic soup you might be able to use a specific mix of bacterias. But I wouldn’t know how to actually get these bacterias to eat the plastic waste in the sea. Besides that, it’s probably not a good idea to bring a big monoculture of bacterias into the ocean’s ecosystem; they might start eating all the good things as well and then your good intentions may turn against you.
Sounds like a pretty good science-fiction movie though; the sea being taken over by outlandish bacterias.

Name a company you would love to infuse with a shot of bio-based innovations?
I’d really like to do something with IKEA. They put so many materials in everyone’s houses allover the world. A lot of those materials could be more environmentally friendly or simply made in a better way. Also, I would love to work with a company like Volkswagen.

What would you change in people’s attitudes towards plastics if you could?
In general, plastic is perceived as a chemical and therefore a ‘bad thing’. As a scientist, I sometimes do miss the nuance in things people say about plastics. Actually, in most cases plastic isn’t that bad at all. Surely, a lot of types could be made better, but plastics do offer us a lot of benefits. For instance, they’re lightweight so easy to use, they conserve our food and they make cars weigh less which is fuel-efficient.

You mentioned ‘better made’ plastics. How could you make a ‘bad’ plastic better?
I like to surprise people with unexpected characteristics that are added to ‘bad’ petrol-based plastics. For example, we can add an organic building block made from sugar to polymers that are used for PET-bottles. With this sugar building-block the bottle becomes more heat-resistant. We can also add materials from nature to petrol-based plastics to make it anti-bacterial.

Can we easily feel or see the differences between the good, the bad and the ugly?
No, that’s not always easy. Some bioplastics are softer than their petrol-based counterparts and some bioplastics are sturdier and noisier, like the crackling plastic that’s used for organic fruits and vegetables in the supermarket.

Ah yes! We know that crackling type. It made secret kiwi-shopping impossible.
True, but it’s also nice to know that it’s made from PLA, the milk-acid plastic we talked about before. The funny thing is that if you’d burn it – just a suggestion – you’ll smell the sweetness of caramel, instead of a nasty mix of chemical substances.

Please name one of your favourite sustainable products.
I love my mountain bike. Cycling makes me happy and I think it’s pretty healthy as well.

Got a tip for Sustainable Masterminds-to-be?
My golden tip for future masterminds in bioplastics: always assume that it can be made from a plant based material; whatever it is that you’d want to make.

We’re all homo sapiens, so what’s your not-so-sustainable guilty pleasure?
I have to admit…I just came back from a vacation in Botswana with my family. It was a truly amazing and beautiful experience but we did travel by plane. That is pretty bad. I don’t think my childrens children will be able to travel with their family to the other end of the world by plane. By then we will probably all have decided that it’s definitely not a good idea to travel in fuel-guzzling airplanes.

Published @ Strawberry Earth//Sept 18, 2015//© Miranda Writes//