More than sugar

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Wednesday, March 19, 2014


THERE’S more to sugarcane than refined sugar.

Take it from SRA administrator María Regina Martin. The United States Department of Agriculture relayed to the Sugar Regulatory Administration that a private firm wants to study producing chemicals from sugarcane juice.

In economics, there is a concept called forward linkages in the value chain. Sugarcane is usually converted to refined sugar. But lately, sugarcane is converted into muscovado, once considered the poor's sugar but is now repackaged in Europe as healthy sugar.

Sugarcane can be processed into other end products such as sugarcane juice. And the irony is that I get to drink the juice in Ongpin, Manila, but seldom in Negros Occidental, supposedly the sugar capital of the country.

Even teeny-weeny city state Singapore has its Tiong Bahru Market where a diner eating a duck serving with noodles get a huge glass of ice cold sugarcane juice.

According to Ms. Martin, sugarcane juice can produce chemicals to manufacture spandex fabric, or elastane in Europe, the favored textile by athletes, professional dancers, and those who work out in gyms.

The Spandex material is outstandingly durable and strong, stretching up to three times its original length and withstanding thousands of washings. The fabric hugs the body, providing unequaled support and comfort while drawing away moisture.

A large number of chemicals can be produced through biorefineries. The most important compounds can be used to make monomers/plastics, explains the Chemical and Biochemical Engineering of the Technical University of Denmark.

I hate to burst the SRA's bubble, as it did with mine. At the present, there isn't much to get excited about bioplastics.

The 2012 Danish review of literature notes that bioplastics occupy a modest part of the plastics market, 0.4 percent of the total plastics consumption. The low level of development is one of several reasons why renewable plastics are not economically competitive with their fossil alternatives.

If oil prices increase to an intolerable level, or that fossil-based plastic becomes highly regulated as in the case of single use grocery bags, bioplastics will show a greater competitiveness when the industrial biotechnology and the polymer-blend technology develop.

The sector is expected to grow significantly as the bio-based monomers become cheaper and more available: already a 30 percent increase per annum is seen.

According to the Sustainable Biomaterials Collaborative, none of the currently available bioplastics are completely sustainable.

The end-product for bioplastics might be ecologically-friendly but not its value chain. It's not even sustainable at this point.

The Collaborative's benchmark for sustainable are the reduction of the amount of material, product and packaging used; single-use products that can be neither recycled nor composted; use of materials derived from renewable feedstock; and encouragement of agricultural systems that are sustainable for farmers, the environment, farm workers and communities.

The bad news is that hazardous chemicals may be used in the manufacturing of nano-composites, cellulose- and lignin-based materials. Their production raises environmental concerns and is connected to the possible risks of using GMOs in the cultivation stage.

So what now? A more ecological spandex hopefully in the future. In the meantime, can we go sugarcane juice to complement our organic meals?

(bqsanc@yahoo.com)

Published in the Sun.Star Bacolod newspaper on March 19, 2014.

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