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Today, society primarily gets its carbon through burning of coal, oil and gas, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. If we want to move away from these options, where do we get our carbon from? A solution might be to utilize renewable biomass resources or capture and recycle carbon from industrial sources before it enters the atmosphere.

What is the difference between biobased and captured or recycled carbon content?

Biobased carbon content and captured or recycled carbon content can be classed as two separate measures. However, these measures are not always exclusive to each other. Biobased content is based upon the source of the raw material and is thus a "beginning of life" concept. Renewable biomass resources, such as plants, are grown, harvested and used to create chemical building blocks.

On the other hand, captured or recycled content is based upon an "end of life" action. Carbon is captured from industrial sources, and instead of entering the atmosphere, again it is used to create chemical building blocks.

Both carbon sources can provide an alternative to conventional petroleum-derived beauty products, help reduce CO2 emissions, and create a diverse range of offerings in the personal care industry such as emollients, solvents, surfactants, and bioplastics.

Defining and determining biobased content

The U.S. Department of Agricultures (USDA) uses the term biobased to describe materials derived in whole or in part from renewable biomass resources such as plant, agricultural, animal, and fungal living in a natural environment in equilibrium with the atmosphere. Biobased resources absorb CO2 when they grow and retain it until they are disposed of. A tree for example can grow for a hundred years and store CO2 naturally, but when it dies and decomposes, it releases that CO2. Because of this process, biobased materials can become climate-neutral, yet this is only the case if their CO2 storage time is more than 100 years, and if the amount of CO2 stored is higher than the materials' production and transport emissions.

Biobased content can be determined through measuring radioactive carbon-14. This is because carbon-14 is present in all living organisms and is retained in biomass feedstocks for a long period of time. ASTM D6866, ISO-16620-2 and EN 16640 are widely accepted standards for validating biobased content based on this principle. The result can be reported as a percentage of biobased content - 0% would indicate that the raw material is derived from fossil carbon; 100% would indicate wholly from biobased carbon, and anything in between would indicate a mixture of the two.

Carbon-14 testing has been used for over a decade to validate biobased claims and often to receive product eligibility for third-party certifications and ecolabels. Globally, there are several biobased certification programs. Many personal care products are certified according to the USDA BioPreferred® Program, which requires the measurement of the biobased content of products according to the ATSM D6866 standard. Under this standard, there are different minimum biobased content requirements for various product categories: 25% for cosmetics and perfumes, 53% for sun care and 92% for shaving products.

The extent to which a biobased material is more sustainable than a fossil fuel-based material depends on a number of (sometimes hard to assess) factors: how the resources for the materials are grown, the local production circumstances, the type of biobased product you want to create, and what kind of biobased resources you are using. Moreover, a biobased material is not necessarily biodegradable or compostable. A life cycle assessment (LCA) should always be used to better understand if the biobased ingredient is more sustainable. 

Carbon Capture and Utilization

The process of Carbon Capture and Utilization (CCU) is a technology that's been making an appearance lately. It can prevent further waste carbon entering the atmosphere by capturing it from industrial sources and using it to produce ingredients such as ethanol, which can then be used in perfumes or converted into other raw materials and packaging. Compared to certain biomass sources, this approach can also reduce water consumption and the requirement for agricultural land, which in turn supports biodiversity.

A 2019 study released by researchers from the US National Academy of Sciences found that CCU technology has the potential to lead a carbon-neutral chemicals industry. The researchers found that full implementation of CCU technologies would exceed "even the most ambitious scenarios for renewable energy deployment". The paper does, however, caution that the industrial starting point from which the utilized carbon is emitted, must also be de-fossilized to ensure a genuinely carbon-neutral industry. If then a standardized framework or infrastructure for CCU were to be developed, it could reduce a country or region's import dependency for fuel, which eliminates transportation costs and avoids global supply chain disruptions.

The next steps

Both biobased and captured carbon have exciting potential to provide a positive sustainable impact in the personal care industry and we can expect to see more progression in this area. However, careful consideration of alternative sources and pathways is always needed. To reiterate, it cannot be automatically assumed that these products are more sustainable than petrochemical derivatives - each product should first undergo a life cycle assessment to determine the most sustainable solution. 

Interesting CCU innovations to keep an eye on
Carbon capture company LanzaTech has already partnered with some of the big stakeholders in the personal care industry, such as Coty, L'Oréal, Unilever and Mibelle, to develop new sustainable solutions. Coty has now started the production of fragrances made using carbon captured ethanol, ahead of their schedule for integrating sustainable ethanol into most of its fragrance portfolio by 2023. Working with the independent sustainability consultancy Quantis, Coty has conducted a screening life cycle assessment which shows a significantly reduced overall environmental impact. L'Oréal premiered the world's first sustainable packaging made from captured and recycled carbon emissions, with the ambition to use this for their shampoo and conditioner bottles by 2024. 


Some interesting biobased ingredients to discover on Covalo include: 

  • 100% biobased surfactants from Clariant and Croda
  • 100% biobased multifunctional ingredient Hydrolite-7-green from Symrise
  • Inolex's large portfolio of USDA certified biobased ingredients with a wide range of applications
  • IFF-LMR conscious extracts collection includes COSMOS approved green absolutes such as Lavandin Absolute Enfleurage 2.0 Organic LMR, obtained with 100% biosourced, renewable and biodegradable solvent

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