The country is aiming to become a global hub for plastics made from plant-based materials, including sugar cane.
Try to imagine a plastics factory. You’re probably seeing an industrial eyesore belching smoke and fire into the sky at a city’s edge. But Dow Chemical and other large plastics makers have a more bucolic vision of what some plants will look like in the future, and they’re heading to Brazil to build them.
The “factories” they have in mind are more like farms: A sugar cane plantation, with 11-foot stalks for miles around, surrounding a plastics plant that runs entirely on cane, emits a fraction of the greenhouse gas spewed by conventional plants, and, by the way, generates enough extra electricity to light a city of 500,000. Dow plans to open its first such Brazilian plant in 2011, and says its cane-based product will compete favorably with conventional petroleum-based plastics if oil stays above $45 a barrel, just a third of its current price. So Paulo-based Braskem, Latin America’s top plastics maker, is building its own plant for 2010 and expects its “green plastics” to sell for 30% more than conventional varieties.
Today about 9% of the world’s oil production is burned making plastics, which itself is a $350 billion-a-year business. But as oil prices soar, Brazil, a country where sugar cane ethanol already fuels most cars, is aiming to become a global hub for organic plastics — that is, those made from plant-based materials. Brazil’s organic plastics are often labeled “bioplastics” since they are made from plants, but while recyclable, they don’t melt into the environment when discarded, like biodegradable plastics do.
Already the No. 8 producer of petro-based plastics, Brazil will soon be the largest producer of organic ones, according to Dow and Braskem. Both companies say they’ve mastered technologies to turn sugar cane into polyethylene, the most popular plastic. By 2012, about 10% of Brazil’s plastic will come from cane instead of petroleum.
To be sure, the bioplastics business won’t displace traditional plastics anytime soon. The 1.2 billion pounds of organic plastic that Dow and Braskem plan to produce in Brazil by 2012 will meet less than 1% of world plastic demand, which itself is growing by 5% a year. But both companies, along with Belgium’s Solvay , Canada’s Nova Chemicals, and Brazil’s Petrobras, hope to build more such plants in the country.
The drive for alternative plastics is being fueled by oil prices, eco-minded consumers, and the economic success of oil substitutes such as Brazilian ethanol. Organic plastics have been around for ages, but high costs and pesky features in some of them — such as a tendency to melt when exposed to low heat — meant they posed little threat to the petroplastics that are used in everything from Zip-Loc bags to Barbie dolls and condoms.
Jeff Bishop, an analyst at San Francisco’s Beacon Equity Research, believes alternative plastics may quickly capture 20% of the market if oil prices continue rising. Braskem has a more conservative outlook, seeing them taking over perhaps 10% by 2020.
Dow raised its global plastics prices by 20% on June 1, blaming high costs of its energy and feedstocks, which rose 42% in the first quarter. Those items account for about half of plastic’s manufacturing costs. As oil trades near $135 a barrel, local sugar cane ethanol, a basic ingredient of Brazil’s new plastics — sells for around half that, or $70 a barrel. By converting ethanol to plastic for export, Brazil could also avoid steep tariffs imposed on its biofuels in the U.S. and Europe, where ethanol from grains costs more than twice as much to make as it does in Brazil. “Brazil will bring green plastics out of the boutique and into the mainstream,” says Paulo Schirch, Brazil director for Solvay, which plans to make some of its own plastic in Brazil using ethanol, sea salt, and hydropower.
At Dow, the process involves fermenting cane juice into ethanol and heating it into a gas. The gas then undergoes polymerization, which is the chemical reaction that creates plastics. Sugar cane leftovers known as bagasse are burned to power the plant and generate surplus electricity to power towns nearby. A natural fertilizer byproduct, known as vinasse, helps grow more cane.
Not everyone believes that sugar cane should be used for plastics. Dow and Braskem plan to burn 300 million gallons of ethanol in 2012, around 6% of Brazil’s current output. Critics say using edible crops for energy has fueled the runup in global food prices. Some say cane farming is pushing Brazil’s agricultural frontier north into the Amazon forest, and that pre-harvest cane-burning, a common practice, lifts Brazil’s carbon emissions.
And, like conventional plastic, Brazil’s cane plastic won’t break down easily in the environment. That which isn’t recycled may end up in landfills, or worse, swirling around the Great Garbage Patch, a Pacific Ocean vortex that eventually sucks in large volumes of plastic floating at sea.
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