We are part of STEPS as part of our effort to secure sugar beet production in Sweden

John P Jensen
Head of New Opportunities at Nordic Sugar

“We are part of STEPS as part of our effort to secure sugar beet production in Sweden.”

2021-07-02. Nordic Sugar has been part of the STEPS since 2016. They are part of Nordzucker Group – one of the world’s larger producers of sugar from beet and cane.

– Sugar beet has the potential to be a very good feedstock for plastics. It has a very high yield compared to other crops and the leakage of nitrat to the environment is very low, says John P Jensen, working in QIPS (Quality, Innovation & Production Support) at Nordic Sugar.

For him, being part of STEPS, offers many benefits for the company. One of them is of course the knowledge exchange between the researchers and the partners. Another is the opportunity to monitor how sugar potentially can be utilized as a sustainable feedstock in the future.

He explains that sugar production in Europe including the Nordic countries has undergone major changes last decade. Since 2017, internal EU market is fully liberalized –  there is no guaranteed minimum price for sugar beets and sugar since the internal market is fully open within the European Union.

– Now we have to contend with variations in price. If there is a rumour that the crop will be good, the price drops. And if we cannot guarantee a good price, farmers might choose to switch crops that year.

These changes have made the case for alternative uses for sugar, beet and pulp even more urgent according to John. Already today, 10-15 percent of all the sugar produced in Europe is used to produce non-food like enzymes, medication, ethanol and furfural, used in the production of cements, adhesives, and coatings.

– There is potential to produce local sugar-based plastics from the Nordic countries. The question is of course how to do in an optimal way.

John P Jensen adds that there is no conflict in terms of land use – there is enough land in Denmark and Sweden to produce sugar for both the food industry, other sectors, and the plastics industry. Around 100 000 tons of sugar would be needed to provide the Nordic plastic sector with sugar-based building blocks. Large size of production is needed for overall feasablity.

– Why should we import biobased plastics from Brazil when we can do it locally? Today companies are dependent on one supplier, and have to import the PLA, PHA, bio-PE from far away. Imagine if we had production of biobased polymers/buildings blocks in our own backyard? You would have both a stable, local and environmentally friendly supply.

STEPS can play a big part in making this happen believes John P Jensen, by providing real tangible examples of how to use sugar, beet and pulp in plastics production. One such example is the sugar-based plastic floor coating, created in 2017 by researchers and partners in the programme.

– The strength of STEPS is that we have the whole range. We have academics working with raw materials, and exploring ways to use sugar in different ways. Possible customers are also in the program.  I have not seen anything like STEPS elsewhere.

Another crucial factor is of course national buy-in, and some big investments.

– I hope we will see a big bioeconomy initiative in Sweden, on a government level. We need some political will to support/facilitate investment in production that can make use of the resources we have here. We have all the potential to build a booming industry in Sweden, producing sugar-based building blocks for plastics, he concludes.