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The Politics of Feedstock Part 2: Is it time to ditch the veggies?

August 28, 2013

I have been banging on about Palm oil for a while now, in fact for pretty much all of my blogging career on-and-off and for good reason.  Sustainability matters to my customers and I and I believe that I owe it not only to myself but also to my readers and paid clients to at least give them the opportunity to utilize the most environmentally friendly ingredients out there, after all, I make it my job to know about these things (because I’m interested).

The cosmetic industry lives in a world that has pretty much given up on animal fats (which I can understand), said NO to petroleum (again, totally understandable given its poor renewability stats) and feels uneasy about Palm (deforestation, displacement, corruption and more besides).  However, on weighing up the chemistry palm has always seemed to be the only sensible option to me (high productivity, low pesticide requirements, high quality oil etc.) so what is it that I am missing in my analysis?

The time had come to go and nut this out with someone who, when it comes to the environment and beauty, knows their stuff.   Cue Grace, owner and founder of Pure and Green Organic Personal Care.

It was Grace that suggested that maybe the issue shouldn’t be about palm after all given that there is so much waste land and material around from which to create feedstock.   I began to think that maybe the time has come to ditch the veggies altogether…

Maybe we will find our next generation cosmetic feed-stock here.

Maybe we will find our next generation cosmetic feed-stock here.

As a non-cosmetic brand owner I don’t have to worry about selling ideas like this to the public.  My focus is directed at the nuts and bolts of the cosmetics industry – the chemical ingredient manufacturers.  A place where all ingredients (natural, organic or otherwise) come from as that is my background and is also what enables us to get truly innovative. You see when it comes to issues around sustainability the things that can shift the whole game the ‘push’ and ‘pull’ dynamics shift and become much more complicated spanning international borders, cultures and policies.   The idea that we are about to discuss – ditching vegetable oils altogether – is complex in terms of how it might play out. It is also un-sexy and lacks the emotional triggers that the current palm vs. ‘clean’ vegetable oil debate has.  Nevertheless the potential for a positive environmental outcome is high, very high and as such it might just be worth pursuing.

So, where does one get their feedstock in a cosmetics industry without vegetables?

Possibly Algae and possibly bio-waste. I don’t exactly know yet but I am keen to find out.


Now I have to confess that the biofuel debate and science are not things that I have focused much attention to over the last ten years.   However, it looks like that is about to change as that market has EVERYTHING that we, the cosmetics industry need for success – how stupid was I not to think of this before given that we used to be happy with petroleum derived oil!

So, what is biofuel?

Biofuel is fuel that is created using renewable feedstock be that entirely or partly like we currently have in Australia with our Ethanol 10% and other fuels.  This renewable component reduces our reliance on fossil fuels and as such is seen as better for the environment (and not to mention fuel security).  Biofuel manufacturing currently sits into two main camps – those adding ethanol to traditional fuels to increase its ‘greenness’ and reduce reliance on fossil fuels and those actually reacting various natural fats and oils to create better fuel.

Biofuel produced from vegetable oil is nothing new and eager chemists, off-the-grid-livers or self-sufficiency lovers have been running anything from their lawnmowers and motorbikes to cars, diggers and tractors on home-baked versions of the above for many years.  That is because biofuel can be made from many fat sources and requires a relatively simple set up to turn the straight oils into esters (trans esterification is the exact term for the reaction) that have the appropriate burning characteristics.  A bi-product of this reaction is the production of glycerin – rather like we are used to in soap making.  Lye is also required as in soap making so all in all it is a pretty familiar reaction to the average saponification expert!

Bio ethanol was an overnight success (well not really but anyway) with the mainstream due to its ease of integration and lack of requirement for retrofit engine modification.  However, like most things that seem too good to be true there was and still is a downside and that became a mainstream topic of conversation when George Bush Junior went crazy for corn in 2007.  Imagine the delight of farmers across the USA when they found that the corn that they usually grow and sell for food was now a valuable component of this lucrative biofuel market.  Prices went up, land for food production ran tight and while people in America didn’t necessarily go hungry pressure was put on the global food chain.  Apparently by 2009 25% of US grain crops were heading for the petrol station rather than the plate setting us up for a global food crisis and run on other grain crops.

Reminds me of this well-known saying about chaos theory:

Something as small as a butterfly flapping its wings can cause a typhoon on the other side of the world…

So back to cosmetics and just how this might be able to change our future.

In two ways.

1)   Trans esterification.

The reaction used to turn fats and oils into fuel can be applied to any source of oil in theory.  How practical this is and how good the oil will be are important details but given the right amount of time, money and patience anything is possible.  This makes it entirely possible to create fuel from oils that we would otherwise throw away (McDonald’s chip pan fat anyone?   Or maybe the Fatty off-cuts from meat processing). Waste-to-functional product at its finest.

2)   Bio-Ethanol.

Bioethanol is a similar situation.   As long as we have something to ferment the process can happen and as such there is no real need to use food grade corn when there is again plenty of waste material hanging around the globe – grass cuttings, husks, veggie stems and peels etc.  The list is endless and again we would be harnessing our waste rather than just burying or burning it.   That sounds like a very big win to me!

Two of the most exciting fields of research from my perspective are looking into using either Algae or microbes to create fuel – two feedstocks that are perfectly suited to our over-populated and waste-centric culture.

What impact might going veggie-free have on the cosmetics industry?

If we pretended for a moment that Proctor and Gambles Head and Shoulders shampoo was made with surfactants produced from these ‘waste’ sources instead of vegetables would it make a difference?

Let’s say that particular shampoo uses a conservative estimate of 20% surfactants tin their formula.  For this example we will pretend that those surfactants are all derived from vegetables and as such the product could be classified as ‘natural’.

That particular shampoo sells around 29 million bottles per year, which is 5.8 million tons of bulk shampoo.

If we then went on to assume that you get a 1:1 conversion from the oil to a surfactant you would need 20% of 5.8 million MT which is 1.16 million MT of feed stock oil.

Sourcing that oil from a high yielding crop such as palm turning an average 4mt per hectare of land would require 290,000 hectares of land on an annual basis.  That equates to 2900 square kilometers of plantation.

By December 2012 it was estimated that palm plantations had cleared 16,000 square kilometers of Kalimantan, Indonesia of which our natural shampoo demand may have been worth just under 20%.

Deriving those surfactants from other vegetable sources would still require land, possibly pesticides and always water.  Deriving them from waste materials, algae or microbes requires a little more effort on our part but leaves our land for food, enjoyment or that thing we call the wild!

So when can we as a cosmetics industry ditch the veggie feedstock?

Black Fungus Collagen Drink

It is unlikely and probably unnecessary for us to ever ditch vegetable oils completely as vegetable oils in their neat form contain many valuable vitamins, minerals, fatty acids and esters required to help us look and feel our best.  However, once these vegetable oils are turned into emulsifiers, surfactants and other functional chemicals the benefits of the oils are reduced if not lost entirely, replaced with a new goal and functionality.  In those cases it makes perfect sense to look for non-vegetable feed stock options as a way of ‘greening’ our bathroom cabinet such as in the above example.

My time talking with Grace got me thinking in a completely different way about global resources, sustainability, cosmetic industry feedstock and consumer sentiment and I wish to again thank her for her time, patience and diligence in working towards a sustainable cosmetic future.

As for me well I know have a whole lot more to think and learn about as I delve into the world of microbe-based materials, algae chemistry and bio-fuel.  It is unlikely that we will see a change away from vegetable based chemistry in the cosmetics industry in the short-term but I for one am now more enthusiastic and optimistic than ever about our long-term future.  Now all we have to do is find a way of making microbes and algae sound as sexy and exotic as coconut, rosehip and Jojoba oil!


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