A Real and Possible Net Zero Circular Plastic Chain.
Get inspired by Braskem’s solutions and insights
The plastics industry has invested in various solutions to make the plastic value chain more sustainable. One such innovation is the development of biobased plastics, sustainable plastics made from plants, such as sugarcane. Braskem, a Brazilian petrochemical company with European headquarters in Rotterdam, has been producing these plastics under the brand name I’m greenTM since 2010.
At COP27 and World Climate Summit 2022 in Sharm el-Sheikh, Braskem will put a spotlight on the opportunities of biobased plastics and explain and demonstrate why biopolymers are so important for a net-zero circular plastic chain. Braskem will also discuss a number of promising new technologies that will help to reduce CO2 emissions in the petrochemical industry, such as electrification of the furnaces at the crackers, CCU (carbon capture and use), and chemical recycling. Walmir Soller, Vice President Olefins/Polyolefins of Braskem Europe and Asia and Global Green PE will speak at the Solution Session “Beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle - Accelerating the Shift to a Circular Economy to Achieve Climate Goals” on 14 November.
In this interview, Walmir Soller answers a few questions on the role of Braskem and the plastic and chemical industry in the transition towards a circular and carbon-neutral chain.
What are biobased plastics and how do they contribute to carbon neutrality?
Biobased plastics are made from bio-feedstocks, such as ethanol from sugarcane. The sugar is produced through photosynthesis using the CO2 that is present in the atmosphere, after that, converted into ethanol by fermentation and eventually transformed into plastic. And plastic can be fully recycled as a conventional product. Braskem is the first petrochemical company to invest in bio-Polyethylene and is the largest producer of biopolymers worldwide. Our goal is to grow our capacity to one million tons by the end of the decade – multiplying our current capacity by at least five.
Biobased plastics contribute to carbon neutrality because plants such as sugarcane are nature’s “carbon capturing machines”; they absorb CO₂ as they grow. Our own biobased plastic I’m green™ is sourced from sugarcane, grown in Brazil’s Centre South Region. Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) demonstrates that for each ton of I’m green™ plastic produced, three tons of equivalent CO₂ are removed from the atmosphere, making the material “carbon negative”. Biobased plastics can therefore make a significant contribution to reducing the GHG emissions of plastic products, compared to fossil alternatives.
Because bio-based and regular Polyethylene are both made from the same building block – Ethylene-, Braskem's I’m Green™ can go along with the regular recycling stream and does not require investment in new plastics-converting machines, minimising investments downstream and avoiding productivity losses, as may happen with other bio-based plastics.
How can policymakers in the EU capitalise on the benefits of biobased plastics?
The upcoming EU Policy Framework on Biobased, Biodegradable and Compostable Plastics and the Packaging & Packaging Waste Directive are a long-awaited opportunity to lay down sustainability policies, targets and incentives for the production and use of biobased plastics in the long term. The recently published SystemIQ report, “Reshaping Plastics” shrewdly called on the industry and policymakers to use every tool to achieve climate neutrality and circularity for plastics by 2050, and bio-based plastics will be necessary to accomplish this goal.
How do you ensure I’m greenTM is responsibly sourced and does not compete with food?
Bioethanol production in Brazil typically does not compete with food, as mills commonly produce sugar and bioethanol as co-products. At the plantations, sugarcane is harvested and processed by a mill where the sugarcane is crushed up to five times. In modern mills, the first press is mostly used to produce sugar. Subsequent presses extract residual sugars in order to generate ethanol. This ethanol eventually becomes the raw material from which I’m green™ plastic is made.
The production of ethanol is not at the expense of the production of sugar, rather, it means that more of the plant is being used. In fact, a purpose is attributed to every by-product. For example, after the sugar is completely removed from the sugarcane, the leftover fibers are fed to a power plant that generates heat to boil the sugar juice.
On top of that, through our Responsible Ethanol Sourcing Program (RESP), and via certification by ISCC and Bonsucro, Braskem ensures that any sugarcane used in the production of I’m green™ minimises any impact on areas of high biodiversity and restricts sourcing from plantations thousands of kilometres away from the Amazon rainforest. Our RESP and Brazilian Biofuels Legislation (RenovaBio) work to discourage deforestation and ensure any new sugarcane cultivation regenerates degraded pastureland.
For our future projects outside of Brazil, we are applying the learning of more than 10 years in this business to develop sustainable sourcing of Ethanol based on an ecosystem that minimises the impact on the environment and respects human rights and social responsibility.
What other things can the petrochemical industry do to reduce emissions?
We think a lot of CO2 emissions can be reduced in the production and recycling of plastics, by the implementation of new technologies. First of all, one of the solutions that Braskem has been evaluating relates to the electrification of the furnaces. Instead of burning naphtha to generate heat, we are working on solutions to use electricity in the cracker. This electricity must ideally come from a renewable source.
Secondly, once plastic exists in the ecosystem, it is imperative that it does not go to waste. An innovation that will play a central role in closing the loop is chemical recycling. This means that plastic waste is processed into the initial raw material for plastic. The goal of chemical recycling is to develop post-consumer plastics for several applications in different markets.
Thirdly, we are selecting and developing carbon capture technologies to convert CO2 back into chemical products. This is another way to re-create carbon cycles. In a linear economy, we just extract oil (or other fossil sources) and release carbon during its processing and use, and the carbon accumulates in the atmosphere. In the circular economy, we invest in opportunities to re-use carbon and create a virtuous cycle.
What would you like to address at COP27 and World Climate Summit?
We are at COP27 to reinforce our commitment to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and to join the discussion with global industry and political leaders on how we can create a net zero circular plastic value chain together.
While we would like to focus mostly on all the technologies and innovations that will enable us to create a net zero circular plastic value chain, we would also like to address some of the challenges that the plastic industry faces. Now, different regulatory frameworks around the world and a lack of infrastructure are slowing down our transition to a circular and low-carbon ecosystem. In the case of bioplastics, the methodology to assess and measure the products’ life cycle and carbon footprint needs to be harmonised according to the best available scientific basis.
Those challenges are similar for all the players in the petrochemical sector, but I am confident that the industry is getting ready for this important transition. Society is expecting us as an industry to play our part in achieving zero emissions. That is why I believe all players in the sector should be bold on this goal, and move together in the same direction, with aligned industry initiatives. We at Braskem will continue to invest in initiatives and technologies that benefit the environment and make people’s lives better. And I invite all - industry, government and society - to work together with us to achieve this goal.
Braskem is part of the chemical and petrochemical industry, which has a significant share in several supply chains and is essential for economic development. As the largest biopolymer producer in the world, Braskem is oriented toward people and sustainability, contributing to the value chain in order to strengthen the Circular Economy and Carbon Neutrality. In this context, chemistry and plastics contribute to creating sustainable solutions to improve the lives of people in sectors such as housing, food, and mobility.
Learn more: www.braskem.com
About the author
An experienced senior executive in the petrochemical industry, Braskem’s VP and CEO for Europe & Asia Regions, Walmir Soller is a key name when it becomes to the plastic and chemical industry transition towards a circular and carbon-neutral chain.