Renew the world of plastic

Plastics are going to be changing big time”. Says Henri Colens, Public Affairs Manager at Braskem. And he should know: Braskem is one of the largest producers of  biobased raw materials for plastics worldwide: polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP). You know it’s their material if you see the “I’m Green ™” logo on a product.

Braskem, originally a Brazilian company founded in 2002, has factories in North and South America and Europe. They’re a supplier of the raw materials for Trioworld’s biobased film. Colens works at the European headquarters in Rotterdam. “Braskem is quite a unique company,” he says. “In 2007 the company began developing plans for using renewable raw materials and in 2010 we were able to offer the first and only bio-polyethylene available to the market. Instantly, Braskem became the world’s largest producer of bio-polymers.”

”The plastics industry is under massive pressure to change”, he says. They notice this at Braskem by the high demand for more sustainable products. “There are two main areas that plastics producers like ourselves must tackle: transitioning away from using oil, and playing a role in the recycling of plastic products after they’ve served their purpose. In other words: renewability and recovery.”

Braskem’s bio-PE is made from sugar cane. And that process actually serves as a model for the entire circular economy, Colens explains: “When processing sugar cane there are two main outputs: sugar and bioethanol. We use the bioethanol, because it saves CO2 emissions, meaning products can have a negative carbon footprint.

“One thing we should say is that even plastics from fossil raw materials are the most energy and resource efficient products around: protecting our food better and longer and making it lighter to transport. But: if plastics are to become circular they must eventually transition away from oil, as well as be recycled.” And that’s where the major change that Colens predicts is taking place.

Radical change behind the scenes

“I think consumers all over the world will begin to notice that some plastic products just aren’t available anymore.” Items like straws are already banned. “And that’s fine,” he continues, “as long as the alternatives are better. If people cannot ensure that these items are used and disposed of responsibly, then we shouldn’t be putting them on the market.”

“The next big thing will be deposit systems: these will be expanded to include plastic bottles and quite a few packaging items. This is already happening, but not nearly at the rates we would like. There will be a small, yet significant, incentive for the consumer to do the right thing – returning it to the producer so that they are far more likely to be recycled. The consumer will begin to see more and more recycled and bio-based plastics on the market.”

But it’s behind the scenes where the most radical change will take place. “Western countries will increase the capacity to handle and recycle their own waste so that as little as possible is shipped overseas.”

It will be a logistical nightmare, as he calls it, to make recycled plastics the norm instead of the niche it is now. Plastic design needs to change, deposit systems and the infrastructure of separating need improving. “It’s technically very complex. Mechanical recycling has a big role to play, but that won’t be all. The big step is towards chemical recycling, with which we can recycle more types of plastic. It can really make the circular economy a reality. But that still requires huge investments and technology. There’s a big race going on to see who can develop this technology first. And whoever wins, will be huge.”

Braskem will be at the heart of this change, Colens says. Or, more eloquently: “We are the grease in this massive engine, working towards circularity.”

A CO² footprint of 0

The company has ambitions to add more and more biobased raw materials and/or recycled material to its portfolio. And also act as a kind of consultant for their clients. Braskem is predominantly known for its ability to offer high-quality polymers, but “we want to be known as the most sustainable plastic manufacturer in the world,” Colens says. “The world is changing and we want to ensure it changes for the better.”

Not by banning out plastics. “We believe plastics are materials that can dramatically improve the quality of our daily lives, leading to societal, environmental and economic benefits. But where it fails is the way it ends up. As consumers, we don’t deal with it properly.” Which isn’t their fault, he hastens to add. ”The problem mainly stems from a failure to provide adequate waste infrastructure: to make it easy for consumers to do the right thing.”

“This means we need to build a new plastics economy so that it can respond to the demands of the market: for circular, sustainable materials. Without the negative consequences is has today. Braskem has unique take on the future: the zero carbon approach. And we achieve that by combining biobased raw materials with the recyclable plastics that are already on the market. It’s the best worlds.”

The shampoo bottle of the future

Specifically, Braskem is currently working on two things: “Expand and improve on the sustainable products already within our portfolio and develop new materials with which we can make the household products of the future.”

“For example, we are developing a new biobased route to produce the chemical building block MEG (mono ethylene glycol). MEG is a component of PET, which makes Coke bottles for example. If it develops as we think it will, this platform could be a very efficient way to produce bio-MEG and a variety of other chemicals. Making PET bio-based, and lowering its carbon footprint will be a huge step forward.”

On top of this, Braskem is placing a lot of its emphasis on recycling – the company is investing millions.
In many ways, the circular economy revolves around collaboration. “We have come to realise that we cannot do it on our own, that we have to share knowledge and resources with other parties in order to make progress,” he says.

Which is what they’ve done by developing of a new bottle. “Together with a partner called Kautex, we have made a blow-moulded bottle, which could be used for a variety of different household products, such as shampoo. The exciting thing is: it’s made from a combination of renewable and recycled material,” Colens explains proudly. “So now we’re also becoming a company that designs end products. To ensure that more recycled plastic comes into the design.”

In part because the developments weren’t going fast enough to their liking. But mainly because the technical requirements for such a development are huge. “There aren’t that many companies with thorough knowledge of polymers to be able to achieve this. And we’re already working on it, doing a lot of testing in our laboratories, so it was actually a very logical step for us to get involved. The circular economy is such a huge change. That means huge answers. ”

The Amazon

As a Brazilian company Braskem is aware of its enormous responsibility, “representing our country as a global company”, Colens remarks. “Climate change is the biggest challenge of our time. We all have to do our bit, and companies have a huge responsibility in this. You hear governments worldwide say that they are changing, but it is the companies that make the biggest impact.”

“We always make clear that we don’t source from the Amazon. When it comes to sugarcane, we ensure we source increasingly from degraded pasture land in the Centre South region of Brazil, around Sao Paulo 2000 km away. We know what’ s happening in politics, and as a company we’re keen to set an example. We need to protect the rainforest and industries such as ours must keep a close eye on that process.”

Real progress is sometimes hard to recognise, Colens acknowledges. “Especially when you see parts of the Amazon on fire, oil on the beaches and the waste on the streets. The most important thing is to not give up, and to do what we can as a company to improve things.”

A circular economy champion

So make sure you stick to it, Colens advises. “As a buyer or designer, think hard about the sustainability of your product. Can you make it better? Can you shift some paradigms? And if you’re using plastics, look up Braskem or other companies that might have a circular solution. The plastics of the future aren’t made from oil. They’ll be made from waste plastics, and sometimes from plants.”

As a consumer, you also have power: “Buy less, reduce its impact by properly separating and recycling, and switch from fossil to biobased raw materials where possible. If you can help accelerate that vision, you’ll be a circular economy champion.”