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Palm Oil and The Bioplastics Industry

Are we using palm oil to produce Bioplastics?

Following question came up after reading an article on palm oil this morning (Can Palm Oil Enter the Circular Economy?): Are we using palm oil to produce bioplastics?

What is Palm oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil derived from the fruit of the oil palms. It has a red colour because of the high beta-carotene content.

Two types of oils are derived from the oil palm tree: palm oil (red colour) and palm kernel oil. Red palm oil can be treated, refined and bleached.

Palm oil is one of the few highly saturated vegetable fats that is semisolid at room temperature.

The largest producers are Indonesia, Malaysia, Nigeria, Thailand and Colombia.

Palm oil and palm kernel oil represent “approximately” 30% of all vegetable oils and fats produced worldwide.

Palm Oil History and Applications

Oil palms have been used for at least 5.000 years. Ancient Egyptians imported and used palm oil. The British Empire relied upon palm oil as an industrial lubricant for machinery during the Industrial Revolution. Palm oil was used for soap products by brands such as Sunlight (Unilever) and  …. Palmolive.

Its lower cost explains its worldwide usage. Palm oil is commonly used as cooking ingredient in the tropical belt of Africa, Southeast Asia and parts of Brazil.

Palm oil is used to produce both methyl ester and hydrodeoxygenated biodiesel. Palm oil biodiesel is often blended with other fuels to create palm oil biodiesel blends. Half of all palm oil imports in Europe end up as biofuels.

The organic waste matter produced by the palm oil industry (oil palm shells and oil palm fruit bunches) can also be used as biomass for bio-energy and bioplastics.

Problems & Dilemma

  • Deforestations

The high oil yield of the palm trees has encouraged wider cultivation, leading to the clearing of forests to make space for oil-palm monoculture. Animal species lose their habitat because of deforestations.

  • Social Aspect

Palm oil provides jobs to local populations. However, several plantations have developed without consultation or compensation for the indigenous people resulting in conflict and abuses. The use of illegal immigrants and workforces on the plantations represent a source of human rights violations and social conflicts.

  • Food vs Fuel

The industrial farming of palm oil has led to the allocation of food resources and agricultural lands for industrial purposes instead of food for the local market. Reduced allocation of resources for food purposes may lead to higher food prices.

  • Business and Jobs

A few developing countries rely upon the palm oil industry. It’s a source of income for governments, companies, families and people.

  • Western Sustainability Standards

Western countries have asked developing countries to stop deforestation and abusive practices.

Can Western countries impose their standards on developing countries? It’s a tricky one. It’s important to put historical context into perspective. The West has colonised countries, used their resources and imposed a liberal world economic order on the rest of the world.

Can the West expect developing countries to respect Western sustainability standards overnight? Can Western countries preach good practices while it stole the resources and wealth of these countries?

Palm oil represents a large source of revenue for that country. Put yourself in the shoes of the local politicians; isn’t it easier to leave things as they are instead of having to look for alternatives?

On the other hand, Western countries have to develop sustainability standards and legislation to stop the environmental crisis and satisfy public opinion.

The compromise is the following: the West cannot blame developing countries for using every mean to generate revenue and wealth; but the West should adopt legislation and regulation for its own market to make sustainability standards effective.

Are we Using Palm Oil to Make Bioplastics?

There may be two options. To use (1) the palm oil itself or (2) the byproducts/ waste of the palm oil industry.

In (1) it would be called a first generation feedstock, in (2) it would be called a second generation feedstock (biomass, waste and byproducts).

In (2) we have two options. They transform palm oil waste into fermentable sugars to produce bio-based plastics; this would be a bio-based polymer; or they use the cellulose fibres (byproduct/waste) to reinforce a (bio-)polymer, this would be called a bio-composite.

I’m not 100% sure if (1) is technically feasible, but it would be morally sensitive and maybe in contradiction to some Western sustainability standards.

(2) is a reality. You can read more here:

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