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 (6)

    • 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.

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