Sugar Cane-Based Polyethylene – a Green Plastic Option?

sugarcane-stalksPolyethylene is not typically a fave among sustainability proponents; after all, it’s plastic, its production process is environmentally draining, and it is not all that recyclable. But if Brazilian petrochemical company Braskem S.A. has its way, environmentalists may soon have a viable polyethylene option. Braskem has created a polyethylene made from sugarcane, which it is marketing as being eco-friendly. But are its claims valid?

Braskem is creating the product using “bioethanol derived from sugarcane – non-grain feedstock,” a Braskem press release says. As far as ethanol sources go, sugar cane is more environmentally friendly than corn, The Renewable Corporation reports: sugarcane produces a high yield, is relatively easy to grow and process, and is not grown in rainforest areas (of particular importance in Brazil). Brasken’s press release claims sugar cane-based polyethylene will have several environmental benefits: it will “contribute significantly to CO2 emission reductions,” not require construction of new production facilities, and be useful for a number of products (including plastic containers and automotive parts).

However, concerns about the environmental harm of ethanol abound; some are expressed in a report by the National Center for Policy Analysis. Aptly titled The Environmental Costs of Ethanol, the report suggests that ethanol reduces fuel economy, corrodes pipelines and other transmission equipment, diverts land from other uses, does endanger the rainforests, and pollutes the air. Heads up, sugarcane polyethylene enthusiasts.

Braskem contracted with Toyota Tsusho Corporation to market the product in Asian regions including Japan; the companies began marketing the product in 2008. Braskem aims to produce the sugarcane polyethylene on an industrial scale by 2011. Other organizations, including the Dow Chemical Company and Crystalsev (among Brazil’s biggest ethanol players) – have already jumped on the sugarcane- polyethylene-producing bandwagon, AllBusiness reports.

Until all the research is tallied and policy catches up, it behooves the consumer to beware.

Sarah Harper is a professional writer based in San Francisco, California. Her interests include sustainability, government policy, and international politics. In her free time, Sarah enjoys toying with the idea of holistic health, overanalysis, and plotting world exploration.

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