Embracing a circular economy: The path to ecological composite manufacturing

The composites industry has seen a noticeable shift towards natural materials. While conventionally flax, hemp or other plant fibres were incorporated into polymer composite systems, new solutions have recently become a market success. Those include, besides plant-based polymer chemistries (as opposed to fossil-based ones), functional fillers, reinforcing fibres and texture particles – sometimes with an interesting story to tell.

Embracing a circular economy: The path to ecological composite manufacturing

4 minutes, 40 secondes

BioPowder, a young company founded in 2017, came to the market with a purpose: to support material scientists in reducing their environmental footprint while enhancing functional properties. The team, coming from a biomass background, has developed techniques to process by-products from the food industry into powders and particles. One raw material has gained prominence thanks to its unique functional properties: olive stones. Crushed in the oil mill as part of the olive and later removed of shell and pulp residues, this lignocellulosic material combines low density with strength and hardness. Micronisation, i.e. milling and sieving into defined micro-meter ranges, creates powders and particles for multiple applications. In composites, BioPowder’s performance powders can add value as reinforcing agents, porosity enhancers, functional fillers, decorative particles and texturisers.

As a company with upcycling as the main product concept, BioPowder promotes circular principles. Reduce-reuse-recycle: operating along these lines requires a holistic approach from the raw material up to the final applications of the natural particles. 

BioPowder is part of an ecosystem of olive and fruit processing value chains. Besides transforming the by-products (fruit pits, seeds and shells) and giving them a second life, the company creates innovative markets for compostable micro-particles, always with the goal of supporting composite makers on their journey towards more sustainability. Sustainability, a word that appears over-used these days, should be filled with meaning and a clear action plan. Otherwise, it will remain a label with little impact.

Current sustainability initiatives in the materials industry focus mainly on recycling: there is consensus about manufacturers’ responsibility to provide valid end-of-life solutions, and recycled content has become a number one strategy to reduce a product’s environmental impact. The team behind BioPowder believes that holistic sustainability should start at the material design stage. Tackling climate change and the ever-growing amounts of waste should involve conscious resource consumption, re-use/re-purposing and extended product lifespans.

BioPowder partners with composite makers to reach a two-fold goal:
1. Reduced carbon and environmental footprints
2. Functional benefits of end products for diverse industrial applications.

In other words, the company offer well-rounded support for manufacturers’ journey to making greenwashing-free products that work.

The BioPowder reduced footprint strategy

Commonly used tools to perform a product’s lifecycle analysis (LCA) often focus on emission-based data, such as the carbon footprint, which is deemed crucial in the context of greenhouse gas emissions and their role in climate change. However, to fully quantify a product’s environmental impact, it is crucial to look at it as part of a wider context. This is what the ecological footprint measures. In other words, it reflects the amount of natural resources an organisation uses in relation to the availability of such resources. Hence, its impact on the depletion of natural ecosystems.

BioPowder’s waste-to-value processes are free from chemicals, resource efficient and local. As a result, carbon emissions values are kept to a minimum. Considering the origin of olive stones, it becomes clear that they are in fact a source of bio-carbon. Research by the International Olive Council suggests that olive trees absorb around 10kg of CO2 per kg of harvested olives. With these facts in mind, the olive-processing ecosystem including oil and by-products is a carbon-negative one.

Consequently, the incorporation of olive stone powders into composites can dramatically improve a material’s environmental footprint. Besides supplying compostable particles, BioPowder is expanding its R&D capabilities to support end-product development, i.e. testing in various binder systems, particle surface functionalisation and colouring.

Unique properties and functional benefits of olive stone particles

a. Reinforcing properties: Olive stone particles, with a hardness of approx. 3.5 (Mohs), enhance the impact and abrasion resistance of a polymeric compound, leading to a longer lifespan of performance materials. Examples include reinforced natural and synthetic rubber, PVC sheets, pipes and cables, engineered wood and ceramic composites.
b. Weight-reduction: Particularly beneficial for lightweight components in industries such as automotive, medical or aerospace. Polymers, both bio-based and conventional, are often filled with mineral powders to achieve hardness and stability. Replacing these heavyweight fillers with olive stone particles can lead to a lower material requirement and an overall weight reduction of the final compound.
c. Decorative and anti-skid effects: Customisable particle sizes that are easy to apply in various compounding systems. Masterbatches, based on PE, PP, PVC, polystyrene, PLA/PHA, can be created with new decorative effects and an elevated bio-content.
d. Hydrophobicity and barrier properties: In addition to fully natural powders, BioPowder offers a range of surface-treated particles that enhance compatibility with different polymer chemistries. This functionalisation improves hydrophobicity, reduces oil absorption, and adds to the overall longevity of bio-based performance composites.

Driving circularity

BioPowder’s approach represents a noteworthy shift in the materials industry towards sustainability. The company’s use of olive stone particles derived from food industry by-products showcases a commitment to upcycling and circular principles. By addressing the environmental impact at the material design stage, BioPowder advocates for a holistic sustainability perspective, going beyond the current focus on recycling. Collaborating with composite makers, its efforts aim to genuinely reduce carbon footprints while offering functional benefits to end products. In a landscape where the term “sustainability” is often overused, BioPowder’s endeavours stand out as a practical contribution towards minimising waste and creating environmentally conscious materials with real-world applications.

About BioPowder:
BioPowder is a specialist supplier of micronized fruit stone powders as bio-based ingredients, additives and abrasives. Derived from food processing side streams, the company’s products support a circular economy and enable manufacturers to reduce their environmental impact. Founded in 2017 and headquartered in Malta, the company sources from the Mediterranean region and manages production in Southern Spain. BioPowder is part of a sustainable supply chain that focuses on upcycling agricultural by-products (not crops), taking a local approach that reduces waste and does not disrupt the food chain.

More information www.bio-powder.com