Plant-Based Leaders | Braskem

For this edition of Plant-Based Leaders, we connected with PBPC member Braskem, a company driving sustainable solutions in plant-based plastics in the US and globally. Braskem is the world’s leading producer of bio-based polymers, per the company’s data. That commitment shows the promise of our plant-based industry, as Braskem is also Latin America’s largest petrochemical company.

Kelly Elizardo, Braskem America’s Circular Economy, Sustainability, and External Affairs Director sat for the Q&A, which has been edited.

Braskem data reveals the company is the world’s leading producer of bio-based polymers. And then the company is a major petrochemical company as well. Tell us the story behind Braskem’s entrance into the biopolymer, or plant-based chemicals, sector.

If you go back to the founding of Braskem in 2002, one of our basic principles was sustainability. And we very quickly adopted the UN Principles and Sustainable Development Goals. So, it’s part of our DNA. A few years later, in 2010, Braskem completed the construction of a bio-based polyethylene production facility in Brazil. Braskem uses proven, proprietary technology to convert bioethanol into physically segregated bio-based ethylene at this facility.

Outside of our products, Braskem looks at sustainability very broadly, including human rights, climate change, and plastic waste. 

Tell us about your Brazil plant that produces plant-based plastics and any others that might be on the horizon. What are the feedstocks for your bio-based polyethylene?

In Brazil, sugarcane is a crop source for ethanol, which is our bio-based feedstock. Today our capacity is just over 550MM lbs., with plans to produce 2.2 billion lbs. (1MM tonnes) by 2030. And we’re not stopping there. We’re currently evaluating a project to make bio-based polypropylene in the U.S. Of course, in the U.S., corn will be the primary feedstock for our precursor bio-based chemicals. And right now, Braskem is exploring partnership opportunities for this project with several clients, brand owners, and suppliers. We’re seeing a lot of client interest and a lot of market interest in the proposed project.

In addition, we’ve also announced a joint venture with SCG Chemicals to produce bio-based polyethylene in Thailand. And we have formed a joint venture with Sojitz of Japan to commercialize bio-based monoethylene glycol (MEG).  

And market demand is driving that growth. When we built the facility in Brazil in 2010, it had an annual capacity of 200,000 tonnes a year. We just recently expanded it to 260,000 tonnes. That’s a 30% increase in production capacity to keep up with global demand, even as we consider two additional facilities.

Braskem uses the term “I’m green™ bio-based.” What are the environmental advantages of Braskem’s methods for producing plant-based feedstocks?

First, sugarcane is exceptionally efficient at sequestering carbon. We’re also using agricultural waste products. Bagasse, which is sugarcane residue, generates the energy to run the facilities. Afterward, the remaining ash goes back to the local farmers and serves as fertilizer for the next sugarcane crop. As a result, we’re working to utilize every part of the sugarcane plant efficiently and effectively.

Braskem has a well-developed responsible sourcing program that continued to evolve and improve. Can you share some of the details?

We launched a Code of Conduct for Suppliers of Ethanol in 2010. After further analysis, we updated and improved the program, launching the Responsible Ethanol Sourcing Program (RESP) in 2016. RESP included annual audits to ensure integrity and sustainability practices in the sugarcane chain, promoting continuous improvement in the management of our suppliers.

Speaking of continuous improvement, in 2022, the program underwent a comprehensive review to give greater weight to climate change, biodiversity, and human rights. We partnered with Ima flora, a non-profit recognized by the United Nations (UN) for their work on sustainable development of agriculture and forestry. This program is aligned with the Credibility Principles of the International Social and Environmental Accreditation and Labelling Alliance (ISEAL Alliance). Today our program covers topics such as business integrity, the environment, workers and communities, and the management of sugarcane suppliers in addition to the other important issues in prior versions.

Braskem’s I’m green™ bio-based products are also recyclable.

Yes, our biobased products from sugarcane are entirely recyclable within existing recycling streams. Our future, corn-based products will be designed to perform the same.  Often, when we in the industry speak about bio-based polymers, we’re focused on the beginning of life. But just as important is the end of life for our material, or any material. Plastic waste is a concern that we feel globally. It’s important to us that we have a path forward to address the plastic waste issue. Our materials, whether they’re fossil-based or bio-based, are recyclable.

But Braskem’s portfolio of bio-based chemicals is broader than polyethylene.

That’s right. We have Bio-based EVA, which is a bio-based ethylene-vinyl acetate that is used in a variety of products, like foams. You find it today in shoes, bras, and athletic products like volleyballs or soccer balls – almost anything that provides cushioning, often in the product’s deeper layers. We also recently commercialized bio-based wax grades, produced in the Netherlands, for specialty applications.

That’s a great segue to discuss some of the other downstream customers and products that utilize Braskem’s bio-based portfolio.

Today, our bio-based resins are exported to more than 30 countries and are used in products from more than 250 major brands. Think consumer products like packaging, bags, housewares, sports equipment, and reusable water bottles. But we’re also in broader categories, contributing to the automotive and transportation sectors, and we’re found in industrial products like cable and wire sheathing.

Any clients you are allowed to name publicly that we might know?

Allbirds, Johnson & Johnson, Nissin, Tetra Pak, and Wilson, the sports equipment manufacturer, all utilize Braskem’s biobased products. Allbirds uses our foam for shoe soles. In Japan, regulations are driving biobased packaging, so you see a heavy demand for our products there. Nissin is a Japanese company that sells instant ramen noodles, and Braskem’s materials are utilized in the noodle cup packaging.

That’s an incredible list. And it seems one of the advantages of Braskem’s portfolio of bio-based chemicals is how they integrate with these customers’ manufacturing.

While our products are biobased rather than fossil-based, it’s the same polymerization process, the same way we manufacture it. The client receives the same material, the only difference is that there is only plant-based material in the product. That means clients utilize the grades in any of their existing manufacturing processes and they don’t need to retool or need to change anything. The grades are true, “drop-in” polyethylene alternatives.

In fact, unless clients are carbon dating the chemicals and analyzing them to see whether the carbon is recent carbon (and plant-based) or very old carbon (and fossil-based), you can’t tell the difference between them.

You’re also dedicated to workforce development and you have a program to support STEM learning in the U.S.

That’s been one of our core areas of giving and sponsorship for many years. Thousands of students in the Philadelphia area have participated in our STEM Scholars program with the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles. The feedback we receive from teachers is that they have so much on their plate that they appreciate this program because it helps to either complement their science program or it is their program, depending on the school. So, it’s been well received. In fact, over sixty percent of students who never thought about pursuing a career in a STEM-based field can imagine themselves attaining one after they participate.

We are also a STEM partner for our local Philadelphia science museum, the Franklin Institute, and we are the national sponsor of the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE) PlastiVan in addition to other programs we support around the country.

And we contribute money towards scholarships for students who are attending historically black colleges and universities majoring in a STEM field through the American Chemistry Council’s (ACC) FOSSI program. It’s one of the largest HBCU scholarship programs in the country.

So as Braskem helps nurture these young people to enter the industry, what would you change about our national or global sustainability priorities to better suit their future?

We all need to make the shift from a linear economy around plastics to a circular economy. And that’s a slow process. It’s a change in the overall fundamentals of how this country and how the world functions. I think any government policies that enable a circular economy are helpful. And we must demand those changes throughout the whole economy. That also means building the infrastructure to collect and recycle.

And more specifically to biobased products, the White House issued some bold goals in March of 2023. We’re excited and looking forward to the next step, which is the gap analysis: okay, we set these bold and important goals. Now, how are we going to get there?

As a PBPC member, talk about the group’s role in those goals you’ve laid out.

PBPC is the industry’s eyes and ears in Washington. And, with these new policy goals from the Biden team, PBPC is perfectly placed to be a powerful voice, building incentives for plant-based materials, and helping move the nation toward smarter policy from beginning-of-life issues to end-of-life issues, and then driving that product transition.

Join our growing group of plant-based leaders working toward a more sustainable economy. Learn more about the benefits of PBPC membership.