From sugar beet to shampoo. This is the idea behind Cosun Beet Company’s new biorefinery in the Dutch town of Delfzijl. The factory is going to convert beet pulp from the sugar mill into plant-based products. Its construction is being made possible in part by a €3 million grant from the province of Groningen. “By doing this, we are providing society with environmentally friendly substitutes for products that are normally based on microplastics,” says Paul Mesters, CEO of the company.
The factory focuses on the production of green ingredients that are used in shampoo, paint and makeup. These products are still commonly based on fossil raw materials in mainstream industry. However, not only the products that come out of the factory are sustainable. The machines in the factory are also environmentally friendly in the sense that they are powered 100 percent by green electricity.
Mesters is pleased with the injection of €3 million from the province of Groningen. “The sugar beet industry has always played a major role in the northern provinces. We are one of the first in Europe to use this type of technology. It is great to see that the province is supporting us in this. That is one of the reasons why we have the courage to take this step.” The company also hopes to secure subsidies from the EU. The total investment in the factory amounts to €50 million. The definitive decision to build will be made before the end of this year.
Cosun Beet Company (formerly known as Suiker Unie) has a long tradition of growing sugar beets and producing sugar. “We believe that as a traditional company that has been part of the sugar industry for so long, we need to change along with the rest of the world and also look ahead to the future,” says Mesters. More and more companies are focusing on becoming more sustainable. “It’s great to see that greening is a major theme at a big company like Unilever.”
On the other hand, you see that society also craves sustainable products and that the European Union wants to be climate-neutral by 2050. “So, the knife cuts both ways. With the arrival of the factory, we are helping the business community and we are doing our bit to make things more sustainable.”
The company has been producing foodstuffs and a number of other non-edible organic products made from sugar beet for some time now. Earlier this year, Cosun Beet Company and Avantium (a company that specializes in bio-based plastics) announced the construction of a factory to develop plant-based glycols. This is a raw material that should make packaging and polyester textiles greener.
Cosun is also working on the production of sustainable paper. Together with paper manufacturer Crown Van Gelder, the company has developed a paper that contains 20% sugar beet pulp fibre. Materials such as grass and straw did not prove to produce enough environmental benefits as raw materials, whereas fibres from beet pulp turned out to be a more sustainable alternative.
In addition to sustainable products, sugar beet also produces energy. When sugar beet is processed, waste streams are created, such as beet tips and leaf trimmings. When these are fermented, they produce energy. When the Cosun Beet Company’s facilities are operating at full capacity, the company supplies more than 25 million cubic metres of green gas to the grid each year. That is equal to the annual energy consumption of 20,000 households. This makes the Cosun Beet Company the largest producer of sustainable gas in the Netherlands.
A sustainable future
Mesters hopes that the Dutch government will also further foster the greening of chemistry by “setting stricter requirements for packaging and content that are less harmful to the environment, for instance. I am convinced that this will lead to a lot more chemical companies focusing on green production.”
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