The Brazilian Bioplastics Revolution  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

Knowledge@Wharton has an enthusiastic look at the bioplastic industry in Brazil - The Brazilian Bioplastics Revolution.

The production of plastics from renewable sources constitutes the next frontier in the search for ways to mitigate our dependency on oil and reduce our environmental footprint. The country at the forefront of these tantalizing developments, however, is not commonly perceived as being a technology powerhouse. Brazil is leading the way in this industry after decades of research and commitment to a technology based on sugarcane ethanol. The technology has proven to be environmentally sustainable and potentially capable of changing the way we manufacture everything, from personal care products to automobiles.

Since plastics are a fundamental material in modern life, making their production more sustainable can have an important positive impact on the environment. Annual plastics consumption worldwide has increased twentyfold since the 1950s, reaching around 150 million tons. It has been estimated that producing 1 kg of the most common plastics requires the equivalent of 2 kg of petroleum for energy and raw material, and releases approximately 6 kg of carbon dioxide. Green plastics could hold great potential for alleviating these negative impacts. As noted by officials at Braskem, the leading petrochemical and plastics producer in Latin America, the development of bioplastics will not just contribute to the prevention of global warming and the depletion of petroleum resources; its recyclable nature will also impact on waste management in urban areas and unlock the potential to revolutionize the cycle of energy production and usage in all aspects, creating a self re-enforcing cycle of producing, recycling and reusing.

Green plastics, also referred to as bioplastics, are made from 100% renewable feedstock (such as plant-based ethanol), have the same specifications of petrochemical plastics and are completely recyclable. Bioplastics do not necessarily have to be biodegradable. As Jeffrey Wooster, senior value chain manager at Dow Chemical, the largest producer of plastics in the world, observes: "It really is about carbon emissions," and plastics produced from renewable sources have a net positive carbon footprint. Compared to the production of plastics derived from petroleum, which emits carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere, the production of green plastics actually absorbs CO2 during sugarcane field photosynthesis. Between 2.1 to 2.5 kg of CO2 are removed from the atmosphere for each 1 kg of green plastics manufactured.

Leading manufacturers Braskem and Dow agree that recyclable green plastics generally perform better than biodegradable alternatives in sustainability analyses. Biodegradable green plastics are less durable, cannot be easily disposed of because of the need to separate them from conventional recyclable material, and emit methane (a powerful greenhouse gas) when decomposing in landfills. On the other hand, green plastics effectively store the CO2 absorbed during photosynthesis for extended periods of time as it is recycled and used in different ways. At the end of their useful life, green plastics can be burned to recover their energy content.

According to officials at Braskem, the revolutionary aspect of these products is that they are renewable as opposed to biodegradable. In other words, they can be recycled without threatening the process, as would polylactic acid, for example, the most common biodegradable plastic produced from corn-based ethanol. At the end of its usable life, non-biodegradable bioplastics can be incinerated together with other urban waste to generate electricity or other types of energy. Considering the quickly dwindling sites for landfills in urban areas such as São Paulo and parts of Europe, the ability to sustainably incinerate waste and generate energy is also highly coveted.

The technology currently used in Brazil to manufacture green plastics is very efficient. Ethane, the raw material to make plastics, can be manufactured by simply removing one water molecule (H2O) from sugarcane ethanol through a dehydration process. In the end, the plastics produced have the same characteristics as conventional plastics derived from fossil feedstocks, such as naphtha or natural gas. Due to their characteristics, sugarcane ethanol-based plastics can compete favorably with conventional petroleum-based plastics and can even be sold at a premium to eco-minded consumers. Although no industry certification yet exists, carbon dating laboratories have been used to certify that the plastics produced are derived completely from renewable sources. ...


While this technology is interesting, I'd like to see a life-cycle assessment completed which looks not only at the carbon flows during manufacture, but also land-use changes. As an student of ecological economist at the University of Vermont (, I am skeptical of any "solution" which may simply create a different types of ecological and social problems. Based on other research recently conducted on the damage a growing biofuels industry could have on our tropical ecological "life support systems" - which provide a myriad of ecosystem services - I worry this may present similar problems.

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