Carbon-free plastics sounds like a great idea, but how will it positively benefit a small business?
Anyone viewing a ranking of the largest corporations in Latin America will undoubtedly notice one thing: oil and natural gas (fossil fuels) companies continue to dominate the list. Corporate giants such as Petrobras (Brazil), Pemex (Mexico), and Petroleos de Venezuela SA always rank high in the list. But one company based in Brazil, Braskem, is already a multi-billion dollar corporation that has developed an innovative method for producing carbon-free plastic.
First a quick look at plastics 101
The raw materials for plastics (often called feedstocks) are made from the fossil fuels that are readily available in natural gas, oil, and coal. The choice of feedstocks is driven by numerous factors including efficiency, quality, availability, and environmental factors. In the United States, approximately 70 percent of plastics are made from North American natural gas.
In their simplest form, plastics are chains of certain molecules linked together. These chains are known as polymers, which is why many plastics begin with “poly,” such as polyethylene, polystyrene and polypropylene. For example, the plastic polyethylene is simply molecules of ethylene strung together, like beads on a necklace.
Polymers can be very simple, made of only molecules of carbon and hydrogen, and sometimes they also have molecules such as oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur, chlorine, fluorine, phosphorous, or silicon. The term “plastics” encompasses all these various polymers.
Whether small- to medium-sized business plastics are a part of everyday living.
All of the following “poly” plastics are currently produced using fossil fuels as feedstocks:
• Packaging materials
• Electrical insulation
• Milk and water bottles
• Packaging film
• House wrap
• Agricultural film
• Carpet fibers
• Automotive bumpers
• Microwave ovens
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
• Sheathing for electrical cables
• Floor and wall coverings
• Automobile instrument panels
Traditionally, plastic is made from petroleum, but Brazil-based Braskem is using its homeland's renewable resource instead: sugarcane. Founded about 10 years ago,
Braskem has overhauled its product portfolio, responding to global demand for renewables; because "green plastic" has the same physical and chemical characteristics as conventional plastic, it can be processed with the same machinery. It can also be recycled just like conventional plastic.
"We are offering a product that actually takes carbon dioxide (CO2) out of the atmosphere," according to Alexandre Elias, Braskem's director of renewable chemicals. The company converts sugarcane ethanol into ethylene, the hydrocarbon raw material that goes into plastic. The process reduces greenhouse gases by capturing up to two tons of carbon dioxide for each ton of green polyethylene produced.
Braskem offers companies using its renewable plastic an "I'm Green" seal, currently found on products from 19 companies and 23 brands, including Johnson & Johnson and Walmart. Braskem produces 200,000 metric tons of green plastic per year, and it's investing to increase capacity. With 80 million tons of plastic produced annually around the world, there's plenty of oil-made plastic left to replace.
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About the author
Mark Robinson is the Executive Director, Americans for Fossil Fuels, LLC. America’s First and Only For-Profit Fossil Fuels Think Tank and Advocacy Firm. He most recently served as the Marketing and Communications Director for the Global Energy & Resources practice at Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited. During his years at Deloitte, Mark led many successful and high-profile global marketing campaigns using social media, conference sponsorships and executive-level appearances, which not only increased revenue but increased brand awareness. Prior to working at Deloitte, Mark served in an executive level position within Public Relations at Exxon Mobil Corporation. Mark received his PhD in International Business Management , with a focus in International Marketing, from the International School of Management. Mark provides Latin Business Today insights on energy and its impact on business.