Green Matter: Growing sustainable feedstocks

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June 01, 2012

Much of the appeal of bio-based materials is based on the fact that they are derived from renewable, “green” resources, such as plants and bacteria, and hence, as the thinking goes, are somehow “environmentally superior” to conventional plastics: they do not deplete finite petroleum reserves or otherwise impact adversely on the planet’s ecosystem.

The realization is slowly taking hold, however, that production of even the greenest of green biopolymers can put a strain on both resources and environment. The sustainability of these materials also requires careful evaluation. Martina Fleckenstein, an agricultural expert at WWF in Germany, put it this way: “There must be mandatory sustainability criteria for the production of bio-based plastics. This means that the raw materials must be grown in a way that addresses environmental and social concerns.”

It’s a legitimate point, and one that needs to be addressed by producers of biopolymers everywhere.

One major—in fact, the world’s biggest—producer of PLA that apparently has its ear permanently to the ground has wasted no time in making sure its sustainability credentials are checkable and impeccable. NatureWorks has just announced that packaging made from its Ingeo biopolymer and sold in Germany by Danone has become the first to achieve certification from both the International Sustainability & Carbon Certification (ISCC) Association and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP), a U.S. based NGO. It’s excellent news and congratulations are in order.

ISCC PLUS is a new certification system for applications in the technical-chemical fields such as bioplastics. It is based on the ISCC certification system, which has been used successfully for biofuels for more than two years. ISCC-certified biomass cannot be sourced from land with high biodiversity value (such as primary forest, areas designated for the protection of endangered species, or highly bio diverse grassland), nor from land with high carbon stock (such as wetlands and continuously forested areas), or peat lands. The biomass must be produced in an environmentally responsible manner; this includes the protection of soil, water, air, and the application of good agricultural practice.

The IATP’s Working Landscapes Certificates program allows end users of commodity crops to encourage sustainable crop production by providing additional income to farmers for the environmental benefits understood to be associated with more sustainable farming practices. Participating farmers agree to raise crops according to more sustainable agricultural production criteria. The farmer then has two products to sell: the crop itself and the quantified ecological benefits associated with the more sustainable production practices—termed the Working Landscapes Certificate. Requirements for earning the Working Landscapes Certificate include not using genetically engineered plant varieties or carcinogenic chemicals and following sustainable agricultural practices to protect and enhance soil, water, air, and biodiversity.

Marc Verbruggen, NatureWorks president and chief executive officer, stated: “Addressing concerns over feedstock sustainability is important for the future because renewably sourced materials will be the only alternative to fossil-based materials for plastics production. While fossil-based energy for transportation and electricity can be replaced with renewable energy produced directly from solar, wind, or hydroelectric power sources, this is not possible for bioplastics materials production. Therefore, assuring sustainable land use is a fundamental requirement for this new technology.”

We think so, too. And we are extremely heartened by the company’s efforts in this direction.

But wait a minute—doesn’t NatureWorks use genetically modified corn in the production of Ingeo?

Indeed, it does. The deal is as follows:

Farmers in the Working Landscapes Certificate program deliver their corn directly to the biorefinery that supplies feedstock for Ingeo production, while receiving a separate payment from the bioplastic user for following program criteria. In 2011, Working Landscapes Certificate non-genetically modified corn was grown in an area of approximately 1360 acres.

The biorefinery, however, delivers the vast majority of the products produced from the corn it processes to other industries. Due to the low-volume material stream for the bioplastics industry, it is impossible to segregate certified corn from uncertified corn. The crucial point is that for every ton of Ingeo produced for Danone in Germany, the corresponding acreage of corn is grown according to the Working Landscapes Certificate criteria in the same region.

Basically, what this means is the fact that Danone has opted to use PLA yogurt cups in a few European countries has led directly to a more sustainable corn production in the U.S.

Wouldn’t it be really nice if the next step were to be that NatureWorks could say that for every ton of Ingeo produced, period, no qualification, the corresponding acreage of corn is grown according to the Working Landscapes Certificate criteria? In the name of “assuring sustainable land use”?

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