CO2 is absorbed by plants and released at the end of the product life cycle. Plant-based carbon has a net-neutral impact on the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere. In contrast to this, materials and polymers based on fossil carbon from underground, release additional CO2 into the atmosphere.
The Dutch company Avantium has developed a technology (YXY®) to convert plant-based sugars into a fully recyclable polymer. The new 100 % bio-based polymer, PEF (polyethylene furanoate) has superior performance properties compared to PET (polyethylene terephthalate). The main building block of PEF, FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid) can be produced from sugars (fructose), for example from wheat, corn and sugar beet. FDCA is polymerised with plant-based mono-ethylene glycol (MEG) to make a 100 % plant-based PEF polymer. When fully technologically developed, PEF can also be produced from cellulose and thus from agricultural and forestry waste streams. Avantium’s current process utilises starch from European wheat. PEF has enhanced barrier properties compared to PET, it is mechanically and chemically recyclable and can also be recycled within the established PET recycling. PEF has a 12 °C higher heat resistance than PET, a 60 % higher modulus and greater strength than PET. This allows the developing of lightweight packaging from PEF with lower resource requirements. Avantium has already implemented this innovative, plant-based packaging material on a pilot scale and recently started the construction of a 5,000-tonnes-per-year FDCA flagship plant in Delfzijl (the Netherlands). The nova-Institute’s peer-reviewed LCA indicates a significant reduction potential in greenhouse gas emissions and use of fossil resources of PEF compared to PET.
Results of the LCA
The nova-Institute performed a peer-reviewed full cradle-to-grave LCA according to the ISO standards 14040/44. A critical peer-review of the study, including experts of LCA methodology and incumbent packaging solutions, verified that the LCA met the requirements for methodology, data, interpretation, and reporting.
The LCA evaluated 16 different impact categories covering all relevant life cycle stages from cradle-to-grave. The comparative analysis showed that PEF bottles would result in significant reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (-33 %) compared to reference PET bottles. PEF would also lead to 45 % lower finite resource consumption of fossil fuels and reduce the pressure on abiotic resources (minerals and metals) by 47 % due to the mechanical properties of PEF enabling light-weighting. However, PET bottles would outperform PEF-bottles in other impact categories mostly arising from the current feedstock supply. Overall, this represents a benefit because climate change and resource use are among the most relevant environmental impact categories in the current political agenda. They are driving the transition from fossil to renewable carbon.
In addition to monolayer PEF bottles, PEF can also be used for multilayer packaging. Multilayer bottles can be an option when the required shelf life cannot be guaranteed by monolayer packaging. PEF offers a good passive barrier for O2 and CO2 and could potentially contribute towards reducing the environmental footprint of packaging solutions by increasing the shelf life of products, enabling a reduction in the weight of packaging, and by improving recyclability.