Brazilian plastics specialist Braskem is working with its partners to help the organisers of Tokyo 2020 deliver a carbon-neutral Olympic Games. Here, Liz Gyekye catches up with Marco Jansen, Commercial Director of Renewable Chemicals Europe & North America division at Braskem, to find out more about its involvement in the Games and its future green plans.
It felt like only yesterday that the Brazilian Olympic Games were being held in Rio and ended successfully in a riot of colour. Yet, in a blink of an eye another Olympics will be before us as the baton hands over to Japan. Next summer, Tokyo is aiming to go further than other cities who have recently held the Games when it comes to sustainability. In fact, Tokyo 2020 aims to be carbon-neutral with the help from bio-based plastics.
Ultimately, Tokyo aims to reduce energy consumption and carbon emissions, using renewable energy sources, public transport and low-energy vehicles. The city will also try to achieve a zero-waste outcome, through an integrated waste management strategy, through re-use, and promoting the recycling of waste, and making use of bio-based plastics.
Hockey pitches made from bio-based plastics will be included in this aim to hold a green Games. The turf that will be used will be known as Poligras Tokyo GT. Around 60% of the filaments are based on bio-based polyethylene (PE) developed by Braskem. The material is called ‘I’m green polyethylene’ and is derived from sugarcane – a plant based raw material that captures carbon dioxide from the environment. Braskem (@BraskemBio) is working in partnership with Polytan, a leading supplier of hockey fields, to supply the pitches to the Games.
Polytan first contacted Braskem in 2016 to find out if it had any sustainable options for producing the hockey turf for the Olympics because it had just been awarded an eight-year contract with the International Hockey Federation (FIH) to supply pitches to future Games.
According to Marco Jansen, Commercial Director of Renewable Chemicals Europe & North America division at Braskem, there are multiple advantages to using its green PE to produce the turf. The main advantage of using the material is the fact that one is moving away from a fossil fuel resource to a renewable one. Second, “for every kilogram of bio-based PE used for the Games, around five kilograms of carbon emissions will be saved”, Jansen says.
The fibres used in Poligras Tokyo GT will also help to offer a modern turf that requires two thirds less water than surfaces used at previous Olympic Games. An elastic base layer also ensures optimum absorption and is an important part of the entire hockey turf system, according to Polytan.
Indeed, in the wider debate on environmental issues, there is a growing acceptance that plastic is not so much a necessary evil but an invaluable resource contributing to sustainability and offering great value for consumers worldwide. It has proven to be a great solution to increase hygiene and without plastic packaging the food waste would have been considerably higher which is a big concern with the growing global population. Jansen says that the negative sentiment surrounding plastics at the moment is not realistic because “we cannot really live without plastic”.
“I think we need to start thinking of smarter ways of using plastics rather than thinking about how we can stop the use of plastics,” he adds. He explains that the problem with plastic waste is that it “in too many cases it does not end up in the right place and is not treated in the right way”. Jansen maintains that industry, brand owners, retailers and authorities all have a role to play in educating the consumer on how to prevent and treat waste.
Contributing to a recycling education programme (Edukatu) is one of many initiatives Braskem is incorporating into its sustainability plans, especially in Brazil. It aims to promote recycling to help people, particularly young people, to “make the right choices and learn how to recycle it and not just dispose of it in the environment”. Braskem is also one of the founding members of the Alliance to End Plastic Waste (AEPW) to help combat plastic pollution in the oceans. A large part of Braskem’s R&D resources are dedicated to circular economy solutions. Firstly, to develop renewable solutions that fit in the natural loop of the circular economy but also to develop recycling solutions to help increase the quality of recycled plastics. Yet, Jansen acknowledges that mechanical recycling on its own is not sufficient to tackle the plastic waste challenge, which is why Braskem is investing significant resources to look at the feasibility of chemical recycling solutions.
Bio-plastics are still more costly to produce compared to their fossil fuel-based counterparts, and this creates challenges for businesses like Braskem. The market doesn’t have the same scale yet that the traditional plastic has. Yet, Jansen says support from policymakers would help to grow the market and ensure companies like Braskem invest in new capacities and additional R&D to develop “smart sustainable solutions”. “But even without this support, I think there is still significant growth because consumers are asking for more sustainable solutions,” Jansen explains.
However, he acknowledges that bioplastics are not the panacea to the plastic waste issue. Jansen maintains that behavioural change is key. So-called “plastic free” solutions that are used for applications where compostable plastics are used should also be avoided as these only mislead the consumer and add to more confusion. Just like bio-based recyclable plastics these compostable plastics are no solution for plastic waste.
“You cannot say that something is better simply because it is bio-based. I think you need to prove that it is better and to make sure that is sustainably sourced,” he explains. “It needs to contribute to a lower carbon footprint proven by an LCA or have additional performance to solve problems that cannot be solved with conventional plastics.”
Talking about sustainability, do environmentalists have a point when they state that first-generation feedstocks should be used for food and not items such as plastic and fuel? Jansen acknowledges the argument, he says: “It is essential that our feedstock is sustainably sourced. We have worked on a sustainable sourcing programme for our bio-ethanol from sugarcane with NGO Proforest.
“They helped us develop a programme to make sure that all of our suppliers were following the minimum requirements with regards to environmental, social and labour laws as well as focus on continuous improvement to strive for excellence.
“In Brazil, in most cases, the same sugarcane is used to produce both sugar and bio-ethanol. Sugar is produced from the high-quality sugar juice and after dilution with water the lower quality juice is use to produce bio-ethanol. This limits the competition with food. But at the same time you can’t say there is no impact. As long as agricultural land is used, there is an impact. But the fact that the same cane is used to produce food as well as plastics helps us to convince large retailers and brand owners that there are sustainable options for them.”
With the global market for bio-plastics predicted to grow by around 25% over the next five years, Jansen says he sees a sector with a lot of potential, and by helping to make Tokyo go carbon neutral next summer, it really does seem that Braskem is going for gold – maybe not the metallic kind, but the bio-based plastic kind.
This feature was originally published in Issue #13 of the Bio Market Insights Quarterly.