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Biobased Companies Take A Closer Look At Sustainability

Establishing green credentials requires including the impact of agricultural raw materials

by Melody M. Bomgardner
July 7, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 27

Credit: Coca-Cola
An ecologist working with Coca-Cola discusses no-till techniques with a corn farmer in Paw Paw, Mich.
A woman in a red hat and a man in a black hat have a conversation in a reaped field.
Credit: Coca-Cola
An ecologist working with Coca-Cola discusses no-till techniques with a corn farmer in Paw Paw, Mich.

Thanks to the emerging bioeconomy, renewable substances made from plants can now be found in places as varied as car interiors, laundry detergent, and plastic bottles. But as the industry works feverishly to increase its scale, the marketing trope that “plant-based” is equal to sustainable may lose luster, unless green claims can be backed by data.

Consumer goods makers want to buy more biobased materials. Yet they point out that most life-cycle assessments for these chemicals, which purport to measure environmental impacts such as greenhouse gas emissions, generally do not take into account the first part of the supply chain—the farm where raw materials are grown. And it is the agriculture portion of the chain that contains many variables in which society has a stake, including land use, food security, labor rights, and water scarcity and quality.

The Biotechnology Industry Organization, a trade group that represents both pharmaceutical and industrial biotech firms, acknowledges that the sector “needs to firmly establish the industry’s sustainability credentials in a straightforward way.” And BIO member firms agree that building credibility requires that they use data on agricultural inputs such as sugar, starch, and vegetable oil.

Measuring—and improving upon—the environmental and social impacts of their own suppliers may help companies ward off the reputation problems that have haunted makers of the most prevalent biobased chemical, corn ethanol. The use of corn for biofuel, many critics say, has raised food prices, increased the use of fertilizer, and spurred farmers to put land into production that was once set aside for conservation.

Field To Market’s Sustainability Indicators


◾ Land use
◾ Conservation
◾ Soil carbon
◾ Irrigation water use
◾ Water quality
◾ Energy use
Greenhouse gas emissions

To help its member companies get started, BIO has launched a sustainable-supply-chain initiative and a voluntary policy outlining steps members can take to work with supply-chain partners, including major consumer brands. The policy will help members follow best practices and work with outside organizations to ensure they are on the path of increasing sustainability, says Paul Winters, a communications director at BIO.

For its part, BIO will help check out sustainability certification schemes aimed at agricultural materials to make sure they are practical and of a large enough scale to bring credibility. The organization will bring in experts from leading consumer packaged-goods firms that have clear sustainability goals. And it will help companies make improvements in parts of the supply chain where appropriate certification schemes may not exist.

“For each company to try to go it alone subjects them to the challenges of having to solve problems in the most efficient way, which may not necessarily be the best way,” Winters says. Firms deploying new biobased technologies, he adds, are often financially constrained and find that merely staying in business can be a more immediate concern.

But the customers of firms making biobased materials have a significant stake in ensuring that they can back up the green promises of their products. For example, Coca-Cola is a large buyer of polyethylene terephthalate that’s made in part with ethylene glycol derived from bioethanol. The company uses the resin to make its PlantBottle beverage containers. Coca-Cola is also working with several companies to develop a plant-derived version of terephthalic acid, the polymer’s other monomer.

“Our belief is that the PlantBottle would always rest on demonstrated, improved environmental and social performance. We wouldn’t advance this program if we can’t have trust in its sustainability,” says Scott Vitters, general manager of PlantBottle packaging at Coke.

And it’s not just consumer brands that are putting the microscope to green claims. Retailers such as Walmart and Target have been sending sustainability questionnaires to product makers and suppliers asking detailed questions about inputs and impacts. In January, Walmart started requiring suppliers that use commodity grains to develop crop nutrient optimization plans to reduce the use of fertilizer.

Because it is a large buyer of agricultural commodities, Coca-Cola already has experience working with third-party sustainability organizations such as Bonsucro, which sets standards for sustainable sugarcane production, Vitters says. The guidelines include, for example, limits for global-warming emissions per unit of sugar as well as standards around labor, biodiversity, water consumption, and effluent.

Credit: Department of Agriculture
Changing inputs and technology have raised U.S. corn yields over the decades.SOURCE: Department of Agriculture
Graph showing the increase in corn yields due to technology.
Credit: Department of Agriculture
Changing inputs and technology have raised U.S. corn yields over the decades.SOURCE: Department of Agriculture

At BIO, a sustainable-supply-chain task force identified the common raw materials important to the biobased chemical industry: corn, sugarcane, sorghum, dedicated energy crops, soy, sugar beets, and forest products. It evaluated certification schemes from Bonsucro, the Roundtable on Sustainable Biomaterials, the Forest Stewardship Council, and others to determine how credible they are.

Dwindling Supplies
Credit: Ceres
Irrigation of U.S. corn farmland is putting stress on groundwater supplies. NOTE: Water stress is defined as the ratio of volume of groundwater withdrawal to replenished supply.
Pie chart showing results of irrigation on U.S. corn farmland groundwater supplies.
Credit: Ceres
Irrigation of U.S. corn farmland is putting stress on groundwater supplies. NOTE: Water stress is defined as the ratio of volume of groundwater withdrawal to replenished supply.

The task force came to realize that the proliferation of schemes can make it difficult to choose certification that is both rigorous and widely used. BIO decided to recognize the International Social & Environmental Accreditation & Labelling Alliance (ISEAL) as a kind of meta-standards organization. Certifying bodies that are full members of ISEAL commit to codes of practice such as transparency, truthfulness, accessibility, rigor, impartiality, and improvement. For example, the multistakeholder Forest Stewardship Council is a full member, whereas the Sustainable Forestry Initiative—launched by the American Forest & Paper Association—is not.

As data gathering becomes more widespread, biobased materials producers will be able to choose among feedstocks with more confidence, points out Andy Shafer, vice president of sales at Elevance Renewable Sciences, a BIO member. “But first you need to establish metrics and standards for your baseline,” he says, “and those need to be the basis for improvement.” Elevance makes specialty chemicals from plant oils in Indonesia.

Elevance claims that its ability to take in different types of raw materials is a cost advantage. But this ability can also help it choose inputs that meet sustainability certification requirements. “At Elevance we believe our feedstock flexibility is an exceptional advantage to deliver on our promise for renewables, with better products and a better footprint. We can make different choices in different parts of the globe,” Shafer says.

Coca-Cola’s Vitters agrees that feedstock flexibility can be key to achieving sustainable products. He points out that his company does not want to see the transformation to a biobased economy cause a disruption in sugar markets. Companies that make ethylene glycol from bioethanol can start with corn or sugarcane; Coca-Cola’s supplier is using sugarcane waste. Ethanol derived from agricultural or even municipal waste will soon become more common.

Another BIO member, Novozymes, supplies enzymes for converting feedstocks to ethanol. The company is using its knowledge of the corn ethanol industry to glean insights on the corn supply chain and on the life-cycle impacts of fermentation and other processing techniques.

Although the biobased chemical industry looks forward to the day it has access to ethanol and other raw materials made from nonfood sources, there are ways to make corn a sustainable option, according to Arlan Peters, head of sustainability for Novozymes North America. “With practices such as optimized fertilization rates, no-till agriculture, and other best practices, you can go from corn that is a net greenhouse gas producer to corn-growing practices that actually sequester carbon,” he says.

Of course, corn growers are not going to change their practices just to make biobased chemical makers happy. The main buyers of corn are food ingredient firms, livestock producers, and fuel ethanol plants. But commodity agriculture is under pressure to become more sustainable, too.

Thus, the biobased materials community welcomes the work of Field to Market, an alliance of growers, seed firms, equipment makers, grain handlers, food makers, and retailers that sponsors pilot programs to capture vital information on agriculture’s environmental impact. “It is the downstream companies, ultimately, that are the drivers because consumers want to know about sourcing,” says Rod Snyder, Field to Market’s president.

The seven-year-old organization offers a free modeling tool, the Fieldprint Calculator, that allows growers of corn, cotton, rice, wheat, potatoes, and soybeans to analyze how farming practices impact the environment and model ways to improve seven sustainability indicators.

The push for more sustainable agricultural practices is happening at the same time that climate change and water scarcity loom. The 2012 drought that hit U.S. corn-growing regions, for example, significantly crimped corn yields and output. Farmers want to know that sustainable practices won’t make their harvests even smaller during the next drought.

Last month, Ceres, a nonprofit group that advises business and investors on the risks of climate change, released a report about U.S. corn stating that “severe droughts, floods, and heat waves at key moments in the growing season are becoming increasingly common, causing dramatic year-to-year supply shocks.” Although farmers have decreased water use per bushel of corn they grow, the overall demand for irrigation water has increased because of the planting of corn in areas where water is scarce. Ceres recommends companies that source U.S. corn join groups such as Field to Market and work to incentivize water-smart practices.

Novozymes’ Peters is pleased that BIO is getting on the metrics bandwagon. “It is very well positioned to interact with other multistakeholder groups like Field to Market,” he says. “Using those kinds of tools on the farm will help us reassure people who might be interested in biobased products that, yes, they can be produced in a sustainable way.”


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