While biofuels have attracted a great deal of interest among the public, press and policymakers, renewable chemicals have become increasingly important in a number of industries as companies look for ways to make manufacturing more sustainable. According to Biotechnology Journal a growing number of companies are now focusing on chemicals as an entry point to build the bio-based economy.

Cellulosic sugars have long been identified as an alternative to fossil fuel additives, which can significantly reduce GHG emissions from manufacturing. From plastic bottles and automobile seats to laundry detergents, companies are exploring ways to utilize biomass, increase sustainability throughout the supply chain, and differentiate themselves to environmentally conscious consumers.

Perhaps the most recognizable adaptation of this trend comes from Coca-Cola. In 2009, Coca-Cola introduced PlantBottle™, the first-ever fully recyclable PET bottle made partially from plants. PolyEthylene Terephatalate (PET) is a durable plastic, completely clear, and a very good UV and CO2 barrier. (These last two advantages are crucial to preserving the contents of the PET container – your refreshing Coca-Cola, for example.)

PlantBottle is a form of bio-PET: a chemically-identical plastic to traditional PET in which the petroleum components have been replaced with renewable materials derived from plants, such as cellulosic ethanol. In the case of PlantBottle, Brazilian sugarcane is converted into ethanol to replace the petroleum component of the plastic.

Every used bottle can be reprocessed to make a new bottle or can be transformed into other high quality products like garments, pens, or building isolation material. As of June 2015, more than 35 billion PlantBottle packages had been distributed throughout nearly 40 countries. The technology has enabled Coca-Cola to eliminate the potential for more than 315,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions – equivalent to the amount of carbon dioxide emitted from burning more than 743,000 barrels of oil – and save more than 36 million gallons of gas.

As cellulosic ethanol plants ramp up production spearheaded by companies like Raizen in Brazil, the carbon dioxide reductions can be increased even more.

Building on the momentum of PlantBottle, the Coca-Cola Company joined forces with Ford Motor Company, H.J. Heinz Company, Nike Inc., and Procter & Gamble to create the Plant PET Technology Collaborative (PTC) in 2012. This strategic working group focuses on accelerating the development and use of 100% plant-based PET materials and fiber in their products—ketchup bottles, apparel, footwear, automotive fabric and carpet.

As part of the PTC, Ford demonstrated its support for the biofuels industry by using ethanol to make automobile manufacturing more sustainable. In November 2013, Ford unveiled Ford Fusion Energi with PlantBottle Technology Interior. Drawing upon the success of PlantBottle technology, Ford produced a fiber that can be woven into durable, automotive-grade PET fabric from PlantBottle material. Fusion Energi, a plug-in hybrid version of Ford’s global midsize car, was determined to be the perfect vehicle on which to test out the material. Ford researchers worked with Coca-Cola to adapt the technology for use in the vehicle seat fabric, headliner and door-panel inserts.

If PlantBottle interior fabrics were migrated across the majority of Ford’s U.S. models, it would displace nearly 4 million pounds of petroleum-derived materials and save the equivalent of 295,000 gallons of gasoline and 6,000 barrels of oil.

More recently, Procter & Gamble announced they would use cellulosic ethanol in their laundry detergent. Another example of leading consumer brands using cellulosic ethanol to enhance sustainability in the supply chain, Tide Cold Water will be the first laundry detergent brand in the world to blend cellulosic ethanol in a scalable and commercial way.

Ethanol has long been a key ingredient in the Tide formulation, allowing for stability of the detergent formula and better washing performance. The switch to cellulosic ethanol will allow local farmers to repurpose over 7,000 tons of agricultural residues per year and increase the production and sustainability of local farms. This will be equivalent to the power needed to do all the washing in homes across California for over a month.

The renewable cellulosic ethanol will be produced at a new biorefinery, which opened in October 2015 in Nevada, Iowa. The plant is the world’s largest bioethanol refinery with the potential to produce 30 million gallons of cellulosic ethanol per year with zero net carbon emissions.

Joining the ranks of P&G, Ford, and Coca-Cola, Lego announced a $1B USD investment in bio-based products and Toyota is utilizing bio-ethylene from Brazil in Taiwan.

The Ethanol Producer Magazine quoted an industry executive earlier this year, “This is a beginning of the reinvention of the manufacturing industry. It’s like the industrial revolution. In the past, we started out with coal-derived chemicals and then it was petroleum-derived chemicals. And, now biomass-derived chemicals. Ethanol is going to be a currency molecule – a molecule that’s going to be a starting point for a lot of production.”

In conclusion…

The proliferation of cellulosic ethanol into various sectors of manufacturing has been happening for the better part of the last decade and will continue to grow as the industry expands, and consumers and companies alike place an increasing value on the sustainability benefits. Will environmentally conscious consumers pull sustainable manufacturing to the forefront, or will it be brave cutting-edge companies with corporate sustainability metrics that blaze the path?

I wish I knew the answer. It will likely take a combination of consumer and corporate support, as well as policy support and technological improvements.

Though, one thing is clear: With a renewed focus on the environment benefits of sustainable chemicals, it is only a matter of time before companies who want to build their brands find ways to incorporate sustainability into their supply chain strategy. In my view, utilizing cellulosic sugars and cellulosic ethanol derived from agricultural waste and purpose-grown energy crops are good places to start.

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Michael Burns

Head of Biomass Conversion Business Development, North America at Novozymes
I am responsible for developing Novozymes’ biomass conversion business in North America.Our biotechnology platform enables our partners to turn agricultural-, municipal- or industrial waste into high valuable products such as Bioenergy and Biochemicals. We believe in a future where integrated biorefineries in clusters will produce a vast amount of the world’s Fuel, Food, Feed, Chemical and Electricity needs.