«We do not want to reduce plastic pollution; we want to eliminate it». In conversation with Germano Craia, CEO of KIK Compounds, a company grounded in developing eco-bioplastics
Elastomers biodegradation process
Biodegradable thermoplastic elastomers (TPEs) are eco-friendly foam materials: they are versatile compounds as they replace rubbers and PVC during the manufacturing process. Thermoplastics differ from thermosets, that are cross-linked polymers – once they are chemically bonded together, they can no longer be shaped or molded. Cross-linking makes the materials stronger but hard to recycle, resulting in plastic lingering in landfills for hundreds of years. Whereas, thermoplastic elastomers aren’t cross-linked – when the material is heated, the cross links are broken. This allows the plastic to be processed and recycled. TPEs are biodegradable, recyclable and hypoallergenic. Biodegradation has a major role in KIK Compounds’ sustainable operating model. Biodegradation is a chemical process in which microorganisms that are available in the environment convert materials into natural substances such as water, carbon dioxide and compost. The process of biodegradation depends on the surrounding environmental conditions, on the material composition and on the application. KIK Compounds focused on speeding up the process of biodegradation to a reasonable length of time. «In particular aerobic conditions, the enzymes start to heat the material and in three to six years maximum, depending on the environmental conditions in which the biodegradation takes place, digest the plastic turning it into methane, gas or Co2. If you accidentally throw one of our products in the wrong place, it will naturally biodegrade within six years without persisting in the environment for hundreds of years», explains Germano Craia, CEO and founder of KIK Compounds. In light of this procedure, raw materials help to achieve an accelerated biodegradation. There is a general mindset that bioplastics are harmless to the environment as they’re deemed to be biobased, biodegradable or to feature both properties. Unlike conventional plastics, derived from petroleum, they are made with bio-based chemical compounds that can be obtained from renewable resources like sugars, starches, and lipids such as corn, sugar cane, beets and plant oils. Bioplastics are not always sustainable and should not be confused with biodegradable plastics. The noun ‘bioplastic’ only denotes that the materials used to produce it are not made of fossil fuel; it does not guarantee its sustainability or recyclability.
KIK Compounds partnership with the ICSTM
Most bioplastics on the market entail ethical issues: the abuse of natural resources could cause environmental issues, creating an illusion that bioplastics are the real game-changers in the evolution of plastics. At KIK Compounds, raw materials are scrutinized and selected, considering where they are sourced, the carbon footprint released during transportation and whether their usage is ethical or has an environmental impact. The company sources all its raw materials from local producers that are close to their facility, located in Târgoviște, Romania. They employ vegetable resources such as coffee waste and used vegetable oils and the selection is at the heart of the manufacturing process, as they need to be dried, segregated and filtered before production. KIK Compounds is continually experimenting with new raw materials to produce their composite compounds – a term they prefer to use to refer to their products instead of ‘bioplastics’. To further broaden the scope of their research, they forged a partnership with the Institute of Multidisciplinary Research for Science and Technology (ICSTM) within Valahia University of Târgoviște, with the purpose to research, experiment and assess the aerobic and anaerobic biodegradability of polymeric materials. All KIK Compounds’ projects and experimentations are supervised and controlled by the laboratory of the university. In order to ensure quality and biodegradability, products go through a threefold detailed procedure. Initial trials are conducted at KIK Compounds laboratory, where biodegradation tests are carried out. Research is bolstered at the University of Târgoviște’s laboratory and lastly, the products are examined by an independent biodegradable products institute based in the US that certifies their bioplastics comply with the standard requirements and issues a third-party certification. As for their research and certification procedure, the biodegradation process is divided into three steps: biodeterioration, biofragmentation and assimilation. Biodeterioration is a surface-level degradation that modifies the mechanical, physical and chemical properties of the material, exposed to abiotic factors in the outdoor environment such as light and temperature. «Biodeterioration is nature that follows its course» Cosmin Gherghinoiu explains. Biodeterioration is sometimes parallel to biofragmentation. During this lytic process, the polymer breaks down into oligomers and monomers, either through aerobic or anaerobic digestion. The main difference between these two procedures in that anaerobic reaction (without oxygen) emits methane. During the third and last stage of the process, assimilation, microbial cells assimilate the bio-fragmented compounds and convert them to biodegradation end products, such as CO2, water and biomass. Almost all chemical compounds are subjected to biodegradation, but most materials take hundreds of years to degrade in nature.
KIK Compounds’s product lines
KIK Compounds’ biodegradable TPE breathes life into three renewable and biodegradable product lines – B series, BM series and E-BM series – with a capacity of around 100 metric tons of bioplastic per month. B series includes biodegradable plastics that maintain their mechanical strength during practical use but break down into low-weight compounds and non-toxic byproducts after their usage. This breakdown occurs thanks to the microorganisms that colonize the surface of the compound and secrete acids that break down the polymer chain. Microorganisms exploit the carbon backbone of the polymer chain as an energy source. B series compounds endure the test of time preserving their quality and are completely non-toxic. While traditional fossil-based materials take from 500 to 700 years until nature breaks down their polymers, KIK Compounds has been capable of hastening its composite compounds biodegradation process adding enzymes as catalysts. BM series encompasses composite compounds with a percentage that goes from twenty to ninety percent biomass. They are entirely produced with locally sourced renewable byproducts such as PLA and are shaped into sustainable packaging solutions. The third product line, E-BM series, incorporates the characteristics of both B series and BM series., resulting in the product line that best embodies biodegradability and ethicalness. Biodegradation tests conducted on all KIK Compounds’ eco-bioplastics confirm that they reach a rate of ninety-five percent of biodegradability in both aerobic and anaerobic conditions. KIK Compounds’ thermoplastic elastomers are molded into various products such as shoe soles, boots, toys and packaging materials. Depending on the product formulation, KIK Compounds’ eco-bioplastics are compostable or biodegradable. Raw materials designed to be shaped into disposable plastic and packaging solutions are certified by TÜV Austria (a leader in the certification of bioplastics) as compostable compounds – they biodegrade up to ninety percent in 180 days. However, the final product certification must be required by producers and industries that purchase KIK Compounds solutions. When compostability cannot be applied, KIK Compounds relies on biodegradability. The other products crafted by KIK Compounds, such as shoe soles and boots, are certified according to ISO standards that test the ultimate aerobic biodegradability of plastic materials in soil. Based on the function the compound needs to perform, KIK is able to alter its chemical structure so as to create a flexible or a resistant and durable material. The durability of each product is tuned with its function and application. «Crafting a shoe sole that lasts up to twenty years is worthless as the actual usage of that item is much shorter» Craia illustrates. At KIK Compounds each product is designed to last up to a logical length of time and accelerated biodegradation diverts plastic from landfills. KIK Compounds is a B2B company, mostly providing raw materials to industries and producers. To ensure that a product provides a reliable eco-friendly biodegradable alternative to traditional plastics, it must go through a precise testing phase before moving to production. Various trials are conducted to choose the most suitable formulation according to specific producers’ needs. This detailed procedure, including the test phase, the production process and the delivery of the product, results in a thirty percent price increase compared to traditional plastics. Based on the formulation of the eco-bioplastic and the function it has to perform, prices may vary; for instance, prices for the E-BM series range from two to six euros per kilogram.
Lampoon report: European Bioplastics
KIK Compounds has proven its bio-ecoplastics compliance to European regulations as it recently joined European Bioplastics (EUBP), is the association representing the interests of the bioplastics industry along the entire value chain in Europe. As part of it, KIK Compounds is committed to driving the evolution of plastics by raising awareness across all relevant stakeholders about the benefits of bioplastics in shifting the focus from fossil fuels, decreasing harmful greenhouse gas emissions, and using renewable resources more efficiently. «Providing industries and people with plastic products that will never become plastic waste. We do not want to reduce plastic pollution; we want to eliminate it» Craia states. KIK Compounds is widening its research team by building additional partnerships with other European universities, so as to involve young generations in a global change. All these joint achievements could place Europe as a global trendsetter in bioplastics production in the near future.
Is a Romanian company located in Târgoviște grounded in developing eco-bioplastics solutions with a wide range of applications, from shoe soles and boots to packaging solutions. Thanks to their partnership with Valaia University of Târgoviște, they blended business and research in order to develop biodegradable thermoplastic elastomers that biodegrade in a much shorter amount of time compared to conventional plastics.