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Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Carbohydrate Economy Clearinghouse

Problem: One hundred years ago, most of our society’s fuels, construction materials, textiles, inks, and paints were derived from plant matter. By the 1980s, petroleum had flooded the market, and today over 95 percent of our industrial products and fuels are petroleum-based. Petroleum-based products come from non-renewable resources that require highly polluting extraction processes. These products can be dangerous to workers and their disposal can be costly for manufacturers and harmful to the environment. How might we become less reliant on petrochemicals?

Solution: Through the use of plant-based chemicals, or “biochemicals.”

Carbohydrates, the essential component of plants, can be converted into chemicals, energy, textiles, and other industrial products creating a “carbohydrate economy” as proposed by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance (Institute / ILSR). ILSR created the Carbohydrate Economy Clearinghouse, a fully searchable database including information on plant matter-based products and the companies/cooperatives producing them.

Included within the Carbohydrate Economy Clearinghouse is a section devoted to biochemicals. Sometimes the term “biochemicals” refers to petrochemicals sprayed on agricultural crops but the Institute uses “biochemicals” to refer to chemicals derived from plant matter – renewable resources such as vegetable oils, citrus fruits, nuts, and fiber crops) – and that can replace petrochemicals currently used in industrial processes.

Biochemical-based products provide an easy and cost-effective substitute for petrochemical-based products, with five main advantages:

• Biochemicals provide manufacturers with a solution to regulatory problems;

• They reduce upstream and downstream pollution;

• Biochemicals improve worker safety because they are typically lower in toxicity, flammability and corrosivity than petrochemicals;

• They are economically competitive with petrochemicals, reducing compliance penalties, permitting and hazardous waste disposal costs; and

• Biochemical production stimulates rural economic development.

The printing and automotive industries are particularly suited to using biochemicals. In 1995, 41 million pounds of toxic compounds were transferred or released into the environment by the printing industry, while the automotive industry contributed 315 million pounds of toxins to the environment. The top-ten polluting compounds used in each industry are all petroleum-based. Biochemical alternatives to these products do exist, and are coming into greater use. For example, the printing industry uses solvents derived from citrus fruits to replace press cleaners containing acetone, toluene, and methylene chloride, and one-third of the nations newspapers now use soy color ink as an alternative to petroleum-based ink. The automotive industry is also beginning to incorporate biochemical products in its processes, relying more on citrus or corn-based alcohol cleaners and degreasers, and even using walnut-hull blasting (rather than chemical stripping) for specialty paint removing processes.

Contact Group: Institute for Local Self-Reliance
Address:    1313 5th Street SE
                Minneapolis, MN 55414-1546

Phone: 612-379-3815
Fax: 612-379-3920
Email: info@ilsr.org
Web site: www.carbohydrateeconomy.org