IHS Chemical Week


Blog: Are Bio-based Ingredients Greener than those from Fossil Fuels?

1:38 AM MDT | April 15, 2010 | By ALEX SCOTT

This is a question many chemical companies are asking themselves as the industry trundles toward the development and use of biobased materials and biofuels in the face of apparently rising fossil fuel prices, increasing availability and ease of handling of biomaterials, and consumer pressure on sustainability.

The difficulty is that the answer isn’t always yes. To make things more complex, even if a biomaterial is greener than the petrochemical alternative, it may not be perceived as such.
Rhodia this week introduced Rhodapex ESB-70 NAT, which the company describes as a “unique renewable surfactant of vegetable origin for eco-friendly personal cleaners and detergents.” The surfactant is a vegetable-based sodium laureth sulfate (SLES) based on ethylene oxide derived from sugar cane, and lauryl alcohol sourced from palm oil.
In its press release, Rhodia details the product’s “eco-friendly” profile, how it has a 30% reduction in green house gas (GHG) emissions compared to conventional SLES. The product is available in a highly concentrated active form so reducing the overall volume to be shipped and stored.
Sugar cane is one of the highest-yielding plants for producing sugar and can be cost effective as a source of raw material when compared with fossil fuels. The sustainability of its production depends on where it is grown, how it is grown and how the cane is processed. There are widespread concerns that the use of food crops for making biomaterials could push up food prices.
Using palm oil as an ingredient in a chemical product could have a greater environmental impact than if a chemical company had continued to source its product from petrochemicals. Greenpeace says that there is no such thing as the sustainable commercial production of palm oil, most of which comes from South East Asia in countries including Indonesia and Malaysia. There is evidence that tropical rainforests are being cleared for the monoculture of palm oil trees. Clearing rainforest releases huge volumes of carbon-not only from the wood but from the soils-into the atmosphere, countering some-if not all-of the gains from switching away from petrochemicals. Additionally, such plantations are unable to sustain much in the way of wildlife including the iconic orang utan.

Palm oil plantation: Creating a new set of
environmental problems.

The negative brand implications of using palm oil also are potentially significant. Nestle sources palm oil for its food products direct from a supplier in south east Asia that Greenpeace claims has the least regard for the environment of any major palm oil supplier. Greenpeace says Nestle recently attempted to ban its advertising campaign highlighting the orang utan’s habitat loss due to the introduction of palm oil plantations. The result is that Greenpeace has ended up successfully distributing its campaign adverts via web-based social networking sites.
Unilever, which has had its own share of being targeted by environmental groups for its use of palm oil in its foods, is seeking a different route: It announced recently that it plans to replace some of its palm oil-derived products with oils derived from algae. Unilever is collaborating with biotech start-up Solazyme (South San Francisco, CA) on the project.
Rhodia’s new product may well be less damaging for the environment than the petrochemicals route. This journalist is not challenging the veracity of Rhodia’s environmental claims. Rhodia declined to provide details about its palm oil supplierd but says its suppliers are members of the Rountable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO). 
As already mentioned, however, the issues are complex, and without complete verification of its biomaterial sourcing, any company claiming it is greener simply because it has switched away from petrochemicals to biomaterials will leave itself open to the charge of greenwashing and could easily become a target for the next environmental campaign. Unlike in petrochemicals, in the biobased world chemical companies will have to know exactly where their raw materials are coming from and the environmental impacts that growing such materials may be causing.

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