The promise of biotechnology

4 05 2011

Plastics are a problem – and becoming more of a problem as time goes on because of our voracious appetite for the stuff: global plastic production grew by more than 500% over the past 30 years.  And we have limited fossil fuels available –  that fact alone dwarfs the plastics problem because we depend on fossil fuels for so much more than plastic.  So, many are looking to biotechnology as a solution.  Biotechnology can be defined as  a variety of techniques that involve the use and manipulation of living organisms to make commercial products.

According to David Garman, US Under Secretary for Energy, Science and Environment under George W. Bush,  “Many think of biomass mainly as a source for liquid fuel products such as ethanol and biodiesel. But biomass can also be converted to a multitude of products we use every day. In fact, there are very few products that are made today from a petroleum base, including paints, inks, adhesives, plastics and other value-added products, that cannot be produced from biomass.”  And J. Craig Venter, founder of Synthetic Genomics, Inc. (which, according to their website, was founded to commercialize genomic-driven technologies), said “We have modest goals of replacing the whole petrochemical industry and becoming a major source of energy.”

The ETC Group, which focuses on the social and economic impacts of new bio technologies,  has just published a new report, “The New Biomassters – Synthetic Biology and The Next Assault on Biodiversity and Livelihoods” (click here to download the report) in which they critique what the OECD countries are calling the “new bioeconomy”:   From generating electricity to producing fuels, fertilizers and chemicals,  they say that shifts are already underway to claim biomass as a critical component in the global industrial economy. But contrary to what I expected, it’s not a pretty picture.

According to The New Biomassters report:

“What is being sold as a benign and beneficial switch from black carbon to green carbon is in fact a red hot resource grab (from South to North) to capture a new source of wealth. If the grab succeeds, then plundering the biomass of the South to cheaply run the industrial economies of the North will be an act of 21st century imperialism that deepens injustice and worsens poverty and hunger. Moreover, pillaging fragile ecosystems for their carbon and sugar stocks is a murderous move on an already overstressed planet. Instead of embracing the false promises of a new clean green bioeconomy, civil society should reject the new biomassters and their latest assault on land, livelihoods and our living world.”

In the world of fabrics and furnishings, the new biotech products which are being heavily promoted now are PLA (DuPont’s Ingeo and Sorona fibers) and soy-based foam for upholstery.

A summary of the report is given in the Sustainable Plastics web site  which I’ve reproduced here:

  • Provides an overview of the bio-based economy being envisioned by many OECD countries and Fortune 500 corporations and being sold to the global South as “clean development,” as well as a comprehensive consideration of its wider implications — a first from civil society.
  • Analyzes the impact of next-generation biofuels, the production of bio-based chemicals and plastics and the industrial burning of biomass for electricity, arguing that civil society needs to critique and confront the combined threats arising from these developments.
  • Unmasks the industrial players intent on commodifying the 76% of terrestrial living material that is not yet incorporated into the global economy. Sectors with an interest in the new bioeconomy (energy, chemical, plastics, food , textiles, pharmaceuticals, carbon trade and forestry industries) flex a combined economic muscle of over US$17 trillion a year. Visible players in the new bioeconomy include BP, Shell, Total, Exxon, Cargill, ADM, Du Pont, BASF, Weyerhaeuser and Syngenta.
  • Explores the safety concerns and threats to livelihoods inherent in the high-risk, game-changing field of synthetic biology. Relying on synthetic biology to provide higher yields and transform sugars could open a Pandora’s box of consequences. See pages 36-41.
  • Surveys the industrial landscape of next generation biofuels, including cellulosic ethanol, algal biofuels, sugar cane, jatropha and synthetic hydrocarbon, and sets out the case for why this next generation may be as ecologically and socially dangerous as the first. See pages 43- 50.
  • Poses challenging questions about the ‘green’ credentials of bio-based plastics and chemicals and their future impact on food supplies and world hunger. See pages 50-56.
  • Raises important political questions about land grabbing: 86% of global biomass is located in the tropics and subtropics, a simple fact driving an industrial grab that threatens to accelerate the pace of forest destruction and land acquisition in the South in order to feed the economies of the North. See pages 15-18.
  • Tallies the investments, subsidies and financial promises being made for the biomass economy. Predictions for the market value of biomass-based goods and services total over five hundred billion dollars by 2020, with the biggest turnover expected in biofuels and biomass electricity. See pages 13-14.
  • Challenges common myths of industrial biomass use, including the claims that switching to biomass is carbon-neutral, renewable and green. In fact, burning biomass can even produce more CO2 per energy unit than burning coal. See pages 19-20.
  • Details how a key error in the UN climate convention is driving destructive policies. By considering biomass energy as ‘carbon neutral,’ the UN has enabled destructive national renewables policies, carbon trading, and technology transfer activities. This report also examines the new REDD+ provisions in the context of the biomass economy. See pages 20- 24.
  • Sets out why we cannot afford any increase in the amount of biomass taken from already overstressed ecosystems. Indeed, industrial civilization may already be taking too much biomass from the systems we depend upon. See pages 24- 26.
  • Explores the new suite of technological strategies being proposed by biomass advocates to boost global stocks of biomass, including the genetic engineering of crops, trees and algae. Meanwhile, the geoengineering agenda is increasingly converging on biomass. See pages 27-30.
  • Exposes the switch to algae, purported to be the next ‘clean green’ feedstock and argues the case against industrial algal production. See pages 47-50.

So here I was thinking that bio polymers would be the wave of the future.   Now I don’t know what to think!  Looks like I’m in for a lot of reading.  If any of you have insights into these issues, I’d love to hear them.

Advertisements




Polyester – to recycle or not to recycle?

12 01 2011

I know it’s hard to imagine that the lovely fabric you’re eyeing for that chair – so soft and supple and luxurious – is just another plastic.

But because 60% of all polyethylene terephalate (PET – commonly called polyester) manufactured globally is destined to be made into fibers to be woven into cloth,  and because  polyester absolutely dominates the market, and because the textile industry has adopted using recycled polyester as their contribution to help us fight climate change, I think it’s important that we keep up with topics in recycling plastic.

”A Tribute to PET Bottles“ by Czech Sculptor Veronika Richterová

If using recycled polyester is good, then using “post consumer” PET bottles  is deemed the highest good.  But an interesting thing is happening with PET bottles and recycling, according to a study published in August, 2010, by SRI Consulting, which is, according to their web site,  the world’s leading business research service for the global chemical industry (www.sriconsulting.com).  The study, PET’s Carbon Footprint: To Recycle or Not to Recycle, caused more than a few ripples because it concluded that in many cases recycling bottles is no better — and could be worse — than landfilling.
The study’s key finding — widely reported — is that a recycling facility needs to recover at least 50 percent of the material it takes in if it is to achieve a more environmentally favorable carbon footprint than simply disposing directly to landfill.  The key is to improve yields , especially in sorting and to a lesser extent, in reprocessing.

This study addresses two key questions:

  • should we recycle plastics?
  • what are the carbon footprints of virgin (vPET)  and recycled PET (rPET)

In order to calculate the carbon footprint of various PET products, the study  calculated the carbon footprint for PET bottles used to package drinks from “cradle to grave,” i.e., extending from production of raw materials (primarily oil and gas) through to disposal of all wastes. The study considers a base case—bottles are used by consumers in northwest Europe, collected in a curbside system and sent on for sorting and recycling—and variations on that theme, including PET-only take-back (as currently practiced in Switzerland) as well as no recycling (with scenarios of “all landfill” and “all incineration”). Sensitivities of all major variables were assessed.

The study concludes that the curbside take-back systems are no better than landfill, in terms of carbon footprint. From a carbon-emissions standpoint, it would be just as well to bury used bottles as to recycle them, and either would be a better option than burning them.  The study found that landfilling PET bottles from certain systems rather than incinerating them could reduce carbon footprint by 30%.  Call it “carbon capture and storage” on an economy budget.  The key is to have the room – and if you read Thomas Friedman’s Hot, Flat and Crowded you may be hard pressed to agree that there could ever be anyplace on the planet with room!

SRI report author Eric Johnson told FoodProductionDaily.com that transportation and processing costs, as well as low yields of pure PET (of below 50 per cent) from curbside recycling collections such as Germany’s DSD ‘Green Dot’ programme,  warranted SRI’s conclusion. (read article here)

Johnson said: “In terms of resource squandering [of oil in particular], if it takes more resources to recycle bottles …  than to produce units from virgin PET then this is irresponsible. If you’re going to recycle…do it properly.”

Jane Bickerstaffe, director of the UK Industry Council for Packaging and the Environment, concurred with Johnson’s point that rPET purity was a significant hindrance to worthwhile recycling, given that it affected recoverable PET levels: “Quality of recyclate is a big issue because the energy costs to separate out contaminants and clean the polymer are significant,” she said. (1)

As you might expect, there was a bit of an uproar over the study.

Casper van den Dungen,  EuPR PET working group chairman,  condemned SRI Consulting’s report:  “By applying SRI Consulting’s results we would …  lose valuable [rPET] material in landfills. The model used is intrinsically wrong, as in reality landfill should be avoided as a starting principle.”  (2)

Antonio Furfari from EuPR added: “The wrong signal is that landfill is good for environment. Landfilling is not acceptable for environmental and resources efficiency reasons, and CO2 is not the only environmental variable.” (3)

And yet, Jane Bickerstaffe had this comment: “It’s worth noting that landfilling inert materials like PET is just like putting back the sand, granite etc. that was dug out of a hole in the ground in the first place.  Inert materials are benign, whereas biodegradable materials such as cabbage leaves and potato peelings generate methane in landfill and have a negative impact on climate change.” (4)

The findings of this study hinge on how the plastics are collected.  Recycling programs using curbside collection typically displace less than 50% of new PET (polyethylene terephthalate). Community programs with plastic bottle take-back, mandated separate collection, or deposits on bottles tend to report much higher displacement rates. For regions that already have a recycling infrastructure, the aim should be to boost recycled PET (rPET) displacement of virgin PET (vPET) significantly above 50%.   The key seems to be in increasing yields rather than improving collection rates.  In countries where there is no recycling infrastructure, the best choice may well be to landfill bottles.”

It seems to me that, in consideration of “should we recycle plastics”  –  the answer is (as it almost always is): “it depends”.   Should we use only carbon footprint as a yardstick?  Sometimes you have to pull back and take in the big picture; as one blogger put it, “It’s unconscionable to pay out the nose for foreign oil so that we can produce more soda bottles to package up products that make our population fat and unhealthy.”

And how does all that trash get into the oceans?  How does that figure into this equation?

Hey, I never promised answers.

(1)  Bouckley, Ben; “Plastic recycling body slams report advising countries to landfill PET bottles”, FoodProductiondaily.com, September 2, 2010

(2)  Ibid.

(3)  Ibid.

(4)  Ibid.