Common language across the value chains of bio-based products – where are the real challenges?

Misunderstandings of terms can halter the growth of the bio-based economy as this unclarity on specifications of products can influence the decisions taken by companies and ultimately consumers to make the switch to these materials

Terminology and common language used across the whole value chains from farmer to consumer is of major importance to facilitate the market uptake of bio-based products. The study carried out within the EU funded project STAR4BBI concludes that challenges are related to misuses of terms and to the lack of knowledge of characteristics of bio-based products. The need for additional standardisation of terms is not perceived as a challenge. Interested parties, such as producers and users of bio-based products are welcome to contact STAR4BBI team for questions and requests.

To facilitate the market uptake of bio-based products, it is important to clearly communicate their benefits to all parties that have a stake in either manufacturing, use or disposal, including producers, distributors, users and consumers, public authorities, NGOs, universities and schools. It is of major importance to have a common language for all these stakeholders to effectively communicate the benefits of bio-based products.


The above mentioned terms are widely used in the bio-based economy. Most of these terms are product characteristics that are communicated at various points in the value chain. Very often these terms are not fully understood by the users, or may have more than one meaning, hence they can cause confusion in relation to the underlying bio-based product. An example of a term that has a double meaning is the seemingly simple term ‘bioplastics’. Often it refers to plastics made from biomass, but it is also being used as a synonym for biodegradable plastic. When the same term is used for different characteristics of products it causes confusion on the market. Misunderstandings of terms can halter the growth of the bio-based economy as this unclarity on specifications of products can influence the decisions taken by companies and ultimately consumers to make the switch to these materials.

The Expert Group on Bio-Based Products (BBP-EG), which advised the European Commission on the development of bio-economy sector, underwrites the importance of clear terminology and communication in their final report (November 2017)1 .
The EU funded project “Standards and Regulations for the Bio-based Industry STAR4BBI” has analysed the vocabulary used across the value chains to identify terminology challenges and issues in the bio-based economy that could be solved via standardization. However, the study showed, that the existing terminology standard (EN 16575:2014 Bio-based products – Vocabulary) is not widely used and that adding additional terms to this standard is not the solution to the current miscommunication in the market. This was confirmed by the experts in the European Standardization Committee on Bio-based products, CEN/TC 411.

Nevertheless, there were other challenges that were identified during the interviews and the desk study:

  • No singular meaning of terms
    • Bioplastic was mentioned as one of the terms used mostly with non-singular meaning. The EN 16575, Bio-based products – Vocabulary states: The prefix “bio” can refer to different functionalities (biodegradable, biocompatible, etc.) or processing (biological or biotechnological processes). With this statement CEN attempted to solve this issue in the market. However, the prefix bio is still used. There are number of other such terms used in miscommunication, such as cascading use, etc.
  • Unclarity on what the characteristics of bio-based products actually mean
    • The EN 16848 and EN 16935 standards specify requirements for transparent and non-misleading business-to-business and business-to-consumer communication of characteristics of bio-based products accordingly. Additionally, CEN/TC 411 has standardized the way communication of characteristics should take place. The STAR4BBI assessment taught us however that the above mentioned standards are not widely recognized and used within the bio-based economy. Consumers currently lack the knowledge of what properties bio-based products actually have. This leads to bio-based product producers not communicating more information about the characteristics of their products, as it is perceived as too comprehensive for the consumers. For example, if a product is labelled as biodegradable or compostable, consumers often confuse it with home composability.

The study carried out has concluded that there are two main challenges in the current bio-based market around terminology: Terms that are being used with no-singular meaning and existing unclarity on the meaning of characteristics of bio-based products. CEN will be asked to consider appropriate action.

The issue of limited consumers/user awareness on bio-based products’ characteristics/terms is a challenge but this is not solved with further standardization of terms. Stimulating further communication is considered a priority at this moment.

Minique Vrins
STAR4BBI Work package Co-ordinator
Netherlands Standardisation Institute NEN
Tel: +31 (0) 15 26 90 326

STAR4BBI is an EU funded project focusing on Standards and Regulations for the Bio-based Industry. The project has started on September 2016 with the duration of 36 months. It is led by the Netherlands Standardisation Institute NEN and comprises the consortium members nova-Institute, TU Berlin and Wageningen University.

The project is funded from the Bio Based Industries Joint Undertaking under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 720685.


STAR4BBI project press release, 2018-12-03.