A yearlong collaboration between various organizations, which began in August, envisions sustainable changes in the Amazon region to foster the growth of the bioeconomy
The Bioplastic project, an innovative collaboration between Amazonian communities, companies, NGOs, and university researchers seeks to commercially produce a unique plastic blend that incorporates fibers from the Brazil nut hedgehog. With the financial support of the JBS Fund for the Amazon, the project addresses one of today’s most pressing environmental challenges: the use of petroleum-based plastics. The initiative has been in development for a year, achieving significant milestones and gaining valuable insights.
The sustainable form of polypropylene is derived from the Brazil nut hedgehog, a type of coconut that stores the nut kernels and that was previously considered waste within the supply chain. This material is now being repurposed through collaboration among various researchers. It holds potential for use in a wide range
of products, including protectors, packaging, lids, handles, containers, and more, meeting the industry’s technical and economic requirements.
Moreover, this project aligns with the concept of the bioeconomy, prioritizing biome preservation and the social and economic development of the Amazonian communities involved in the collection and preparation of the material. The project is anticipated to generate R$ 4.8 million in income for the communities involved, contributing to a total turnover of R$20 million within the initial three years of commercialization. Additionally, it is expected to significantly reduce CO2 emissions by over 300 tons within the same period. In a conservative estimate, within the third year of its introduction to the market, this new plastic could potentially replace up to 18% of conventional polypropylene production by TutiPlast, a partner company in the project.
The initiative is led by the World-Transforming Technologies (WTT) foundation, a Latin American organization specializing in technological innovations with socio-environmental impact. It began in 2022 with fieldwork, research, and coordination among organizations. The project’s innovative financial and execution model is supported by the JBS Fund for the Amazon and the Bioeconomy Priority Program (PPBIO), a public policy under the Manaus Free Trade Zone Superintendence (Suframa), coordinated by the Amazonas Institute for Conservation and Sustainable Development (Idesam).
Idesam focused on mapping out a production chain suitable for the manufacturing of bioplastic, while the Amazonas State University (UEA) conducted research and development to formulate bioplastic blends that meet industry’s technical and economic demands.
“We identified greater security of production, environmental sustainability, and benefits for the communities in the Brazil nut production chain. Identifying a chain with these characteristics was a challenge, but it has been rewarding because we believe it will be successful and bring benefits to the riverside communities that have been working with Brazil nuts”, explains Marcus Biazatti, Idesam’s technical coordinator, who also highlighted the potential use of the hedgehog – an Amazonian product that is still largely underutilized. Currently, five communities in the municipality of Labrea are involved in the initial stage of collection and processing, with over 30 others expressing interest in joining the project.
Within the realm of scientific research, UEA researchers are operating in the laboratory of the School of Technology (EST) with a team consisting of university professors, fellows, volunteers, and professors from other institutions. The process includes crushing and grinding the material to conduct experimental tests aimed at determining the exact amount of material required to replace or reinforce the polymer. “By reducing the consumption of traditional plastics, we’re focusing on sustainability. This project is compelling because it unites academia, government, industry, and the community—a clear example of the quadruple helix of innovation”, explains Prof. Roger Bello, a lecturer in Materials Engineering at UEA and the project’s research coordinator.
Professors Michele Rigon Spier, a researcher at the Federal University of Paraná, and Pedro Campelo, from the Federal University of Viçosa, are also taking part in the project. The team was carefully assembled to ensure their expertise complements one another. “The magic of the project lies in this collaboration between extraordinary scientists, communities, and industry. These are individuals with complementary skills and roles, united by a common objective: to generate a positive impact for the people of the Amazon and the environment”, explains Andre Wongtschowski, WTT’s Director of Innovation. On the industrial front, the project has forged a strategic and operational partnership with TutiPlast, a company based in the Manaus Industrial Estate with 25 years of experience in plastic injection solutions, for the large-scale production of bioplastics.
As it celebrates its inaugural year of development, the project celebrates its accomplishments in institutional and community collaboration, along with the valuable lessons learned and results achieved during this research period. This pioneering initiative underscores the potential of cross-sector collaboration in boosting the bioeconomy in the Amazon region, emphasizing the significance of structuring scientific teams and institutional cooperation aimed at addressing significant social and environmental challenges.
“The development of groundbreaking research focused on bioproducts values the socio-biodiversity of the Amazon, creates value for community-based businesses that use the standing forest, and brings local raw materials to industry on a large scale. This is essential for generating local income and fostering social inclusion”, highlights Joanita Karoleski, President of the JBS Fund for the Amazon.
The next steps of the project involve installing machinery and establishing a facility for the initial processing of the hedgehog in an association of producers working in agro-extractivism in the municipality of Labrea. Another important step is validating the transportation logistics to Manaus. Regarding scientific research, the stages involving the chemical surface treatment of the hedgehog, which includes the fiber bleaching process, and the microscopic analysis of the granules, are progressing toward the final stage.
Researchers note that the tests for the production of the complete biocomposite are yielding positive results. “The fully biodegradable biocomposite is classified as such due to the natural origin of its polymeric matrix and its reinforcement, making it biodegradable in the environment through microorganisms, while the partial biocomposite still relies on a petroleum-based matrix”, explains Professor Roger Bello. Finally, in terms of the industrial aspect, plans are underway for the acquisition of equipment and factory adjustments for testing and subsequent industrial-scale production of the bioplastic. The project is expected to be completed in early 2024.