36: Food containers from sugar cane


Because of their short lifespan as packaging, petroleum-based polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene (PE) thermoplastics end up in landfills as waste and take around 20-30 years to completely decompose.


Polypropylene made from sugar cane.

In October 2008, at the BioJapan conference in Yokohama, Braskem of Brazil announced that after five years’ research they had succeeded in producing the first green polypropylene sample made using 100% sugar cane as a feedstock resource, which was verified in accordance with ASTM D6866.

They had used fermentative ethanol production, followed by chemical conversion into ethene, dimerization and metathesis.

The following year, Braskem entered into partnership with Novozymes as well as with Brazil’s UNICAMP college and LNBio laboratory. With access to the country’s large sugarcane crops – reaching 30 million ac (12,2 million ha) in 2015 – Braskem became the leading manufacturer of non fully biodegradable bio-polymers in the world.

In 2019, after considerable R&D, Neste  of Finland, the world’s largest producer of renewable diesel from waste and residues, and LyondellBasell of Rotterdam, Netherlands, one of the largest plastics, chemicals and refining companies in the world, announced the first parallel production of bio-based polypropylene and bio-based low-density polyethylene on a commercial scale.

The joint project used Neste’s renewable hydrocarbons derived from sustainable bio-based raw materials, such as waste and residue oils.

The project successfully produced several thousand tons of bio-based plastics which are approved for the production of food packaging and being marketed under the names Circulen and Circulen Plus, the new family of LyondellBasell circular economy product brands.

Neste is now working with Jokey, a leading international manufacturer of rigid plastic packaging on rigid food storage and other bins.

LyondellBasell also sold some of the renewable products produced in the trial to customers like the Melitta Group’s Cofresco, and for use in popular household wraps made by Toppits and Albal.

Cofresco plans to use the Circulen Plus bio-based polyethylene to create sustainable food packaging materials. Other uses include textiles, bottles, Rubik’s cube stickers, and even polymer banknotes.

One of Neste’s first clients was home furniture company IKEA initially for plastic storage boxes. As capacities improve, more products will follow. IKEA is working to change all of the plastic used in IKEA products to plastic based on recycled and/or renewable materials by 2030.

In June 2019, during the G20 Ministerial Meeting on Energy Transitions and Global Environment for Sustainable Growth in Karuizawa in Nagano, Japanese materials company Mitsui Chemicals introduced a new cost-effective production concept for bio-PPs – bio-propylene and bio-polyethylene.

This involves the fermentation of various biomass types, mainly non-edible plants, to produce isopropanol (IPA), which is then dehydrated to obtain propylene in a first-of-its-kind IPA method.

During the next few years, bioPP breaking down more readily in sunlight is expected to generate huge profits in terms of revenue but also contribute to planet protection.

Discover solution 37: The marvel of ‘green charcoal’ – biochar

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