The industrial sector often uses plant matter as raw material and fuel. But the production process can be disastrous for wildlife and local communities. In Germany, businesses are working for more sustainable practices.
German chemical companies use some three million tons of raw plants in their production processes each year. The demand for raw materials including plant pulp, sugar and oils is expected to grow.
This increasing demand puts serious strain on wildlife as companies destroy natural habitats. There are consequences for people as well - sometimes whole communities are displaced as land is taken away and used for cultivating biomass crops.
One example is palm oil which is used as a cooking oil, a fuel source, a lubricant and in cosmetic products. In many countries in Southeast Asia, palm oil plantations now exist in places where there used to be rainforests and peat bogs. Environmental advocates have been demanding better standards in order to protect biodiversity and people living in regions where biomass is harvested.
Germans develop voluntary criteria
In October of last year INRO, a German organization consisting of industrial companies, associations and interest groups, settled on a new list of criteria for sustainable biomass production. The list covers the mode of land use, as well as planting and harvesting methods for biomass crop. A company must meet all the requirements in order to be considered sustainable biomass.
The standards are based on the 2009 European Union checklist for the requirements of biomass. But supporters of this new agreement say is it more extensive, offering better standards for the entire industrial sector. There are 25 ecological criteria, including a ban on rainforest destruction and drying out of peat bogs, as well as protection for ecologically valuable savannah areas. Under these requirements, soil integrity must also be protected and nitrate leaching is to be avoided.
There are also 19 social criteria points that need to be met, including clean drinking water, proper accommodation and appropriate levels of pay for locals and workers. Child labor is forbidden and producers must prove that they are not involved in corruption. They must also document how they are using each farmed area.
"Setting up these standards is just the first step," says Martina Fleckenstein from the World Wide Fund for Nature, WWF. The challenge now, she says, is to show that these criteria can be put into practice.
Good in principle
The plan is that from 2014 onwards, lubricants and plastics produced in Germany will be tested and certified under the agreed biomass sustainability checklist. It is hoped that, in turn, this will lead German companies to adopt sustainable production methods and demand that suppliers at home and abroad improve their standards.
"In the end though, each company needs to decide for itself," says Jörg Rothermel from German chemical industry association, VCI. Rothermel doesn't think the new voluntary criteria should become law. "That could actually scare off companies that want to get into using biomass."
The new standards will increase product sale prices, as producers pay higher wages and opt for sustainable land-sourcing. For example, a ton of sustainably-produced palm oil costs some 30 to 40 euros ($40.97 - $54.63) more than non-certified palm oil.
At present, about 13 percent of chemical products in Germany are produced with biomass. Rothermel expects that chemical companies working with tight budgets will continue to opt for raw materials sourced from fossil fuel.
Rothermel added that many chemical products simply cannot be replaced by biomass-based products. If they were, he warns, food production could be compromised.