James Woollard | The benefits of sugar cane polythene over oil-based polythene

While sugar content in food and drink takes a bashing in the media, Polythene UK’s managing director believes sugar cane is providing a viable alternative to oil-based polythene.

Since the theory of recyclable biodegradable plastic was debunked (there’s little benefit in a material that degrades completely in two to three years), plastic producers have been looking for a viable polythene product, that’s not only environmentally friendly, but also suitable for the recycling mix and for subsequent reuse.

And whilst many producers are still exploring solutions, we’re convinced that the polythene product they’re looking for is already out there and offers a number of benefits over oil-based polythene.

It starts in the form of sugar cane. Specifically, waste sugar cane, created from the leftovers of sugar cane extraction.

The sugar cane is important. From sugar cane waste a polymer is created that’s bio-based rather than oil-based. During the growth of the sugar cane, the natural process of photosynthesis sees carbon actively captured meaning the polymer is initially carbon negative. The amount of captured carbon is almost equivalent to the amount of carbon expended when using oil-based polymers, which means the benefit to the environment is huge.

It’s also worth noting that sugar cane polymers are a renewable resource and don’t deplete fossil fuels, unlike their oil-based counterparts, which again is of enormous environmental benefit.

But, whilst it starts of as carbon negative, the production process inevitably generates carbon through factors such as transport and electricity use, which means that by the time the bio-based polythene is produced it is actually carbon neutral as opposed to carbon negative. The Carbon Trust recently accredited an example of sugar cane based polythene bags as carbon neutral, confirming that it’s possible to nullify the effect of carbon emissions.

Sugar cane based polythene has a number of uses. It can be used to create bags, covers, tubes, films, wraps and stretch film, which means there are a wide variety of functions to which it can be applied.

To go back to an earlier point though, why is biodegradable (oxo-degradable) confirmed as debunked?1 Well, the problem with biodegradable materials is that over time micro-organisms degrade the polymer to the point where it becomes flakes and particles and can no longer be recycled. This is great for a polythene bag that’s found its way into landfill or a hedgerow and is no longer needed. However, once the bag is degraded it’s gone forever, along with the fossil fuel used to create it. Now, following environmental revisionism, the emphasis is on recycling and reuse.

Sugar cane

The introduction of even the smallest amounts of biodegradable material into the recycling mix degrades the whole process, limiting the number of times that plastics can be reused. It’s no longer about being biodegradable, but bio-based. Being bio-based means that renewable sources are used and there’s no loss of valuable non-renewable fossil fuels. Being non-biodegradable means that the polythene can be used in the recycling mix indefinitely. It’s worth noting though that it’s essential that the sugarcane polythene is 100% recyclable. That way it can be continually of use.

The term ‘bag for life’ is currently in common supermarket parlance and bags are a hot topic thanks to the recently imposed 5p bag tax. Bags created using carbon neutral, 100% recyclable properties allow the opportunity for an authentic ‘bag for life’ that offers both longevity and pioneering green credentials.

But, whilst this is all very well and good from an environmental stance, business is business and cost is often king. Currently sugar cane polymer, when compared against its oil alternative, is undeniably more expensive to produce. And inevitably, businesses will see this as a major stumbling block when considering its implementation. It’s hard to justify the use of a more expensive polythene option to the board and to shareholders even if it is better for the environment. But what if there was a solution that wasn’t just carbon neutral, but also cost neutral?

Well options are out there that help to reduce this cost impact. Using the latest extrusion techniques, and specialist polymers, it’s possible to offset the cost of the sugar cane polymers by reducing the thickness. This reduction in thickness can be by as much as 20 to 30%, meaning less material is used and therefore less cost is involved. This saving can also be applied to a business’s carbon footprint – less polythene means less carbon, and therefore a smaller carbon impact, further enhancing its environmentally friendly credentials.

This thinner polythene, when combined with sugar cane polythene offers the potential for a ground-breaking cost neutral, zero carbon impact product.

In light of the recent furore around the 5p carrier bag tax this solution could be a cost effective, green alternative that serves to further the aims of the environmental battle against plastic bag pollution.

It’s worth considering some additional key points. The UK uses some 1 million tonnes of polythene films and bags every year. Using fossil fuel polymers to meet this demand costs the planet 2.6 billion tonnes of CO2 annually. By widely implementing sugar cane polythene this figure could be drastically reduced.



James Woollard is managing director of Polythene UK, an independent supplier of polythene films and bags and one of the UK’s leading packaging suppliers. To find out more about Polythene UK products, visit the website.


1See Defra report on the environmental of oxo-degradable plastics: http://gov.wales/docs/desh/publications/100602wasteoxydegradableen.pdf