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Will sugar be the oil of the 21st century?

Matilda Lee

1st December, 2009

You can turn it into everything from fuel to plastics. But will the surge in demand for sugar end up having a serious environmental impact?

What with Coca-Cola's Diet, Lite, and Zero drinks, the sugar content of the world's popular fizzy drink seems to be disappearing. Until you look at the bottle itself. In May this year, Coca-Cola unveiled the ‘PlantBottle', the ‘bottle of the future' according to Coca-Cola's CEO Muhtar Kent, made partially from sugarcane and a sugarcane by-product. Some 2 billion of these new plant-based polyethylene (PET) bottles will be on shelves by the end of 2010.

Sugar is not just the stuff that rots your teeth. Long used as an alternative fuel, sugarcane, of late, has emerged as a material in ‘bioplastics', an industry estimated to take up to a third of the total plastics market by 2020.

Jim Thomas, a research manager at ETC (action group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration), likens the situation today to the end of the 19th century, when synthetic chemists were working out how to crack the hydrocarbon molecule.

'What you've got now is synthetic biologists doing the same thing with sugar - saying, "how can we biologically transform sugar into thousands of different things",' he says.

Brazil

In the long term, what Thomas refers to as the ‘sugar economy' will encompass a range of biological feedstocks - plants, grasses, corn stalks, algae and agricultural ‘waste' products - whose cellulose fibers are broken down into sugars, becoming the building blocks for fuels, plastics and chemicals.

Yet much of this technology is in its infancy, so for now, the focus is on sugarcane, which can be made into polyethylene, the most widely used of all plastics, by extracting the sugar (sucrose) and fermented it to produce ethanol, which is dehydrogenated to ethylene, and then polymerized.

Coca-Cola, like many other multinationals, sources its sugarcane from Brazil, the world's largest sugarcane producer and exporter, producing an estimated 31.3 million tons of sugar and 25.7 billion liters (6.8 billion gallons) of ethanol in 2008.

Low production costs, a result of a 30-plus-year-old ethanol industry which now fuels a portion of nearly all of the country's cars, have made Brazil one of the most vocal promoters of energy crops. In the past few years it has seen a massive influx of foreign investment to expand the infrastructure for biofuels and bioplastics.

Carbon counts

Coca-Cola has tentatively claimed its new bottles are carbon friendly: ‘Preliminary research indicates that from the growing of the plant materials through to the production of the resin, the carbon footprint for the PlantBottle packaging is smaller than for bottles made with traditional PET'.

Other corporations have more ambitious claims about bioplastics.

Dow Chemicals, the world's largest polyethylene producer and Crystalsev, one of Brazil's largest ethanol companies have formed a joint venture in Brazil to produce polyethylene from sugarcane. Its new plant is expected to start production in 2011, have a capacity of 350,000 tons a year and produce, ‘enough renewable energy to power the plant and provide domestic energy to a city of 500,000 inhabitants', according to Bruno Pereira, Manager of Sustainability in Plastics for Dow in Latin America.

Pereira says that the production of sugar-based polyethylene will ‘cut greenhouse gas emissions by 211 per cent compared with conventional PET production'. Fossil based PETs global warming potential (GWP) is 1.8 pounds of CO2 equivalents per pound of PET, whereas cane-based PET's GWP is -2.0 pounds of CO2 equivalent per pound of PET (ie. carbon negative, as it 'locks up' atmospheric CO2 absorbed through photosynthesis).

Dow is also working to develop and approve an appropriate methodology to make its project in Brazil eligible for UN carbon credits. ‘Considering all environmental and social studies conducted so far, the company is fully confident with regard to the project's eligibility' he said.

Brazil's largest petrochemical firm Braskem plans on producing 200,000 tons of sugar-based ethylene/polyethylene a year and has already secured contracts to provide products to Johnson & Johnson, cosmetics company Shiseido and the Toyota Group.

Braskem claim that its green plastic ‘removes more carbon from the atmosphere than it emits throughout its lifecycle, from the planting of sugarcane to post-consumption recycling.'

Doubts about land use

While there are high hopes for sugarcane to usher in a post-petroleum economy, the worry is that, like biofuels, the technology may become a victim of its own success. Already, Brazilian campaigners claim production is increasing deforestation, damaging vital ecosystems and exacerbating land conflicts.

To sustain both the biofuels and the emerging bioplastics market, estimates point to a necessary expansion of sugarcane plantations to cover some 12.2 million hectares by 2015, or at least doubling from the current 8.89 million hectares in the next by 2020. A study from the University of Sao Paulo estimates that billions of dollars will be spent in the next five years on the construction of 73 new ethanol companies in the center-South region.

The question is where this expected increase should come. Currently, sugarcane is concentrated in the state of Sao Paulo, which accounts for about 50 per cent of the country's sugarcane harvest and 60 per cent of total ethanol production.

Maria Luisa Mendonca, director of Brazil's Network for Social Justice and Human Rights says: ‘We know that sugarcane plantations are expanding very quickly, "pushing" forward agricultural borders and, at the same time, preparing the way for the expansion of cattle-raising and soy production.'

Brazilian campaigners claim that seven million hectares of the Amazon have been cleared over the past 5 years by soybean farmers, as they have had to move to make way for increased sugarcane production.

And according to a report by Friends of the Earth, sugarcane production is spreading to regions where it has previously never been grown, threatening environmentally-sensitive areas such as the Pantanal Wetland in Mato Grosso do Sul and the Cerrado in Maranhao.

Unsustainable growth

Recent studies that have taken into account emissions from land-use change have demolished the idea that ethanol - derived from either maize or sugarcane - automatically has net greenhouse gas savings.

If carbon-rich tropical forests are razed, even indirectly, because of sugarcane expansion, ‘benefits quickly diminish' - regardless of how effective sugarcane is for producing ethanol - according to a report in Science.

But while destruction of the Amazon has generated much international visibility, the fate of the Cerrado, a biome known as the ‘father of water' as it fills up the principal water basins of the country, has been largely ignored. More than half of this species-rich region has already been cleared, and, at the current rate, it will be totally destroyed by 2030.

The Cerrado is already being used to cultivate sugarcane, and is a major battleground for campaigners. The government has identified it as a potential area for expanded sugarcane production, primarily because its flat terrain allows for mechanised harvesting. A study has found that the production of sugarcane ethanol from converted areas of the Cerrado requires at least 17 years of ethanol production to recuperate the carbon lost into the atmosphere.

But in a wider sense, away from the tallying of carbon emissions, environmentalists point to the detrimental ‘monoculture model' required to maintain large sugarcane plantations, wherever they be.

Friends of the Earth Brazil argue that aside from being a water hungry crop, sugarcane plantations' environmental impacts include the application of chemical fertilisers, intensive use of herbicides and pesticides, the pollution and decrease of available water sources, soil contamination, soil compaction by heavy machinery, destruction of native vegetation areas, contamination of rivers and springs, atmospheric pollution due to clearing cane plantation areas through burning, and the destruction of biodiversity.

Given this, Mendonca argues that the real cost of sugarcane production hasn't been accounted for.

‘A true environmental impact study should include the whole agricultural sector and the whole process of ethanol production,' she says.

Government responds

Responding to concerns about deforestation from sugarcane growth, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva has said more than once that sugarcane will not be produced in the Amazon

In September this year, the President proposed an Agro-Ecological Zoning (ZEE) bill which limits where sugarcane can be grown. The bill, if passed, would prohibit the construction or expansion of sugarcane farms and production plants in any area of native vegetation, in the Amazon, or in Pantanal (Brazilian Wetlands).

It aims to restrict sugarcane production to regions that do not require full irrigation and areas that allow mechanised harvesting, helping to end the practice of clearing land by fire. It favours, instead, expansion into underused or ‘degraded pasture land'. It has set aside 64 million total hectares for sugarcane planting, equivalent to 7.5 per cent of the national land area

Lucia Ortiz, coordinator for Friends of the Earth Brazil, doesn't believe that the ZEE goes far enough. ‘It doesn't refer to areas or projects that are already in force, and there are already areas in the Amazon region being cultivated. More than that our concern is that it permits a huge expansion of monoculture of sugarcane - these areas are very much concentrated where there is infrastructure available and environmental concerns have taken a backseat to lobbying from the sugarcane industry'.

Better Sugarcane

Elsewhere, the Better Sugarcane Initiative , a market-led standard for sugarcane, is being developed to ‘mitigate the consequences of production and expansion' of sugarcane,' according to BSI general manager David Willers.

The BSI standard, which is still being revised, measures labour, social, climate change, pollution and high conservation land use standards in a metric. Willers says BSI certification and labelling should begin by September 2010.

It is a member-based organisation, with big corporates such as Coca-Cola, BP, Tate & Lyle and Cargill already involved. Willers says the goal is for members to claim that their products have contributed to sustainable sugar and avoid ‘certification fatigue' by being the one label used in the sugar industry.

BSI certification could have a positive effect - eradicating some of the worst practices such as wage-slavery, terrible working conditions, pollution from sugarcane production and moving towards some standard of biodiversity protection.

Yet when asked about sugarcane production indirectly contributing to deforestation, Willers said that although there are protections against sugarcane growth in high conservation areas, the BSI will not measure indirect land-use change. 

While the BSI may mean 'sustainable sugar' becomes a mainstream standard, it won't necessarily guarantee that the future of sugarcane production - and the myriad products that spring from the resulting sugar compounds - will be sustainable.

Matilda Lee is the Ecologist's Consumer Affairs Editor

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Users Comments

Re: Will sugar be the oil of the 21st century?
Posted By EC003545 1 December 4, 2009 08:30:06 AM

The problem with sugar from cane or other crops is that when it is used to produce biofuels as soon as the fuel is burnt the CO2 is released back into the atmosphere. Thus no question of negative CO2. Braggers on such questions should be taught common sense, chemistry and to calculate from the beginning to the end of the process. If you start by destroying forest you have also to add the CO2 that was locked up in the forest.
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