Are Sugarcane-Based Plastics a Sustainable Alternative to Petroleum? - Public Goods Blog Are Sugarcane-Based Plastics a Sustainable Alternative to Petroleum? - Public Goods Blog

Are Sugarcane-Based Plastics a Sustainable Alternative to Petroleum?

Right now most of the plastic in our products is made from fossil fuels, an energy source and material that is not renewable or sustainable.

sugarcane field, farmers

The manufacturing process for petroleum-based plastics produces a ridiculous amount of carbon dioxide — 70 million metric tons per year — and accounts for about 3% of U.S. energy consumption.

Even if climate change wasn’t a factor, there is a finite supply of oil. Someday we will run out, and then what will we do?

Fortunately scientists have developed several sustainable alternatives, including sugarcane-based plastics. In 2010 Braskem, a Brazilian chemical company, commissioned a facility that would produce I’m green™ Polyethylene, a plastic derived from ethanol sugarcane.

Because sugarcane captures CO2 as it grows, the manufacturing of sugarcane-based plastics usually has a neutral impact on climate change. Unlike oil and natural gas, sugarcane is renewable because it regenerates quickly. The constant rainfall of the tropical climate in Brazil provides crops with plenty of water.

In the case of I’m green Polyethylene, buyers at the company purchase sugarcane-based ethanol, the same substance that often fuels cars. Then their machines converts the chemical to ethylene, a colorless gas. In a reactor the ethylene transforms into polyethylene, a solid that can be molded into plastic products. This material has physical and chemical properties that are similar to petroleum-based plastic, but the process of making it is much more sustainable.

Sugarcane-based plastic isn’t perfect, though. It can be more costly to produce than plastic from fossil fuels, and critics have questioned whether it is the most sustainable alternative. In an article published in The Independent, Keele University Environmental Science Professor Sharon George claimed that sugarcane plantations can “put huge stress on the environment” because they consume a lot of water and often use pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers. Expanding these facilities could displace local farmers and lead to exploitative working conditions, George wrote.

In every agricultural industry there is the possibility of companies mistreating workers, polluting, wasting resources and disrupting local communities. Take the palm oil industry. There is rampant corruption and environmental damage, but the problem is not palm oil itself. Consumers have the option of certified sustainable palm oil products.

Crops are innocent, and sugarcane is no exception. The problem is greedy people who prioritize profits over sustainability and ethics.

At Public Goods many of our personal care products use bottles made of sugarcane-based plastics. To make good on our promise of sustainability, we vet every manufacturer we work with to ensure they are not harming the environment or abusing employees.

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Comments (26)

    • No, I’m afraid not. The main benefit is that they reduce the pollution that comes from petroleum plastics.

  • Which of your bottles use sugar cane plastic and which don’t? Are the clear house cleaner products petroleum-based? Have you thought about supplying them in aluminum instead of plastic?

    • Hi Lindsey,

      All of our white personal care bottles are made of sugarcane plastic. The others are petroleum plastic. Currently we are trying to switch to 100% recycled ocean plastic for everything. That way we can clean up the world and then try to make sure that plastic doesn’t get out into the environment again.

      I don’t know if we have considered aluminum. I will forward that suggestion to our development team.

  • Hi Public Goods,

    Microplastic particles from polyethylene and other plastics are being recognized a much larger environmental threat than anyone would have thought. In short, as a global society, we must stop using plastics for “transient” uses. Although the garment industry is the largest opportunity for change, no transient uses of plastics are going to be acceptable in the long run. We have to find alternatives. I am sure that with the focus that Public Goods has, alternatives can be found. Ultimately, they *have* to be!

    • Hi Brian,

      These are really good points, and they have definitely been topics of discussion in our office and quarterly meetings. Currently we are considering a switch to aluminum. The big challenge has been finding recycled aluminum suppliers. Producing new aluminum has a negative impact on the environment, too.

      Thank you for the feedback by the way! We’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

    • Hi,
      what are the properties of these plastic as compared to other. The main cause here is the cost. The pricing of these plastic can reduce? and how it can be used as packaging purposes?

    • Hi Taylor,

      We recommend tossing them or, if you don’t mind spending a bit, sending them to a recycling service such as TerraCycle. Unfortunately, municipal recycling facilities can’t process any form of plastic bag. Also, we’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

    • Taylor, I wash out the bags. I then fill them with water, freeze and use them in my coolers during the summer. They are incredibly sturdy and do not leak. I have passed some on to my friends for this use. I am trying to think of other uses as well. Maybe this will spark someone to suggest other uses.

      • That’s a great idea, Diana! Thank you for the feedback! We’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

      • Thanks for that idea! I just emptied a hand soap refill and am going to tuck it away for summer cooler cooling. I should have a few more by the time weather is warm enough here for picnics!

        • I also want to say thank you for the share on reusing the refill bags! I’m glad I decided to read the comments.

  • Thank you so much for working hard to protect our environment. I’d rather support a company that is willing to use sugarcane than oil.

    • Thank you, Julia! We are constantly trying to improve. Heads up that we’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

  • Piggybacking off of Taylor’s comment above, are there current plans to find alternative packaging for the refills? I love the idea of reusing containers and buying in bulk, but if the refill bag is still waste…I feel like there should be better options out there. Thanks you for Public Good’s efforts to vet manufacturers and not marginalize workers.

    • Hi Suzanne,

      We have considered a takeback program similar to Loop. The problem, however, is takeback programs produce more carbon emissions and are extremely expensive.

      Our challenge has been figuring out how to afford a takeback program and offset those emissions. We do already plant trees for every new member, so we have at least started becoming carbon neutral.

      We have also discussed recycled aluminum. In this case the obstacle has been finding recycled aluminum distributors.

      Virgin aluminum has a much more sustainable conclusion to its lifecycle than plastic, but producing new aluminum is bad for the environment. It’s one of those conundrums we talk about here almost every day. We’ll update you as we make progress.

      Thank you for the feedback by the way! We’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

  • It’s a neutral climate impact unless demand for sugarcane based ethanol and plastic spurs more deforestation in Brazil. What guarantee do you have that more rainforests aren’t being cut down for your product? Does Public Goods sponsor rainforest protection initiatives in Brazil?

    • Hi Danielle,

      That’s a great question! We have a few guarantees that our manufacturing is not contributing to deforestation.

      The sugarcane we use in our plastic is grown in contained areas. Our manufacturers are not clearing land. The crops regenerate quickly, so there’s no need for them to expand.

      Instead of relying on trees for our paper products, we source farmed bamboo that, like sugarcane, regenerates too rapidly for it to be depleted. We also have a partnership with Eden Reforestation Projects that ensures a tree is planted for every new Public Goods member.

      Thank you for the feedback by the way! We’ve been giving this $5 off code, PGBLOGFAM, to people who comment here.

  • I was glad to get the info on how your plastic containers are made. I was about to request information on recycling just before this post came out. What is the plastics recycle code?
    Our county does take plastic recycling, however, you are not supposed to put any plastics in that don’t have a plastics code number on them.

    • Our family recycles as much as possible . When we go to the store we take our totes bags with us so we don’t use the plastic store bags. The daily newspaper we have in digital to save the paper. Any plastic that is coded goes into our recycle bin with paper , glass etc.😀

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