As Queensland cane farmers and mills grapple with low sugar prices, a North Queensland politician has renewed calls for the industry to diversify by manufacturing bioplastics.

Bioplastics are made from plant-based materials and are appealing as eco-friendly wrapping due to their ability to break down.

The Member for Mackay, Labor’s Julieanne Gilbert, said cane-farming regions were well placed to pioneer the industry.

“We have got an abundance of resources right here in Mackay,” she said.

“We’ve got feedstock we can use from our sugarcane crops, we’ve got plenty of water, we’ve got power, we’ve got land … and highly skilled people.”

Plastic cutlery
Single-use plastics are a major contributor to landfill, and biodegradable plastic would help solve that problem.(ABC RN: Fiona Pepper)

But Canegrowers Mackay chairman Kevin Borg said Australia did not have the right commercial or political environment to make the venture viable.

“Viability is the main word in this because at the end of the day we need government policy behind these things for it to take off,” he said.

Support needed

Mr Borg said there needed to be government support, through policy and funding, to make the venture realistic.

“People have to make a quid off it,” he said.

“If the government could come in with some policy to support these things, then I have no doubt growers would want to be a part of it … we’re all ears.”

Mr Borg said there needed to be more research and discussion about what part of the cane contributes to plastic manufacturing, and how it would impact sugar profits.

“There’s a discussion to be had about whether we can sacrifice sugar,” he said.

“At the end of the day if I’m a sugarcane grower and I’m sacrificing sugar and the price of sugar skyrockets, who’s going to take a cut on sugar to make plastics?

“Growers virtually at this stage get nothing out of value add.

“There’s got to be a discussion between growers and mills, and also industry and government.”

Manufacturing from by-products a ‘win-win’

Ms Gilbert said manufacturing bioplastics did not have to impact sugar profits.

“A lot of these products are made from the by-product of the processing of cane, so it’s a win-win for everyone,” she said.

“Everybody’s sitting there saying they want to be part of this but nobody’s pushing it.”

Queensland University of Technology chemistry professor, William Doherty, said the idea was not a new one.

“From 2004 there’s been a lot of interest to convert biomass into plastics, so over the years I’ve had a number of PhD students working on trying to use sugarcane fibre to convert it into plastics,” he said.

Dr Doherty said he was doubtful bioplastic manufacturing would gain much traction in Mackay in the near future.

“It’s not realistic because it comes to the stalk availability,” he said.

“I’m not trying to be negative here, I’m just saying that one of the stopping locks tends to be the stalk supply, it’s always been the problem.”

Could create thousands of manufacturing jobs

Ms Gilbert said she was approaching companies to gauge their interest in plant-based packaging, and working with State Government bodies to assess demand.

She is building a case study to take to investors and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Ms Gilbert said the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted the country’s reliance on overseas manufacturing.

“I want to see Queensland and Mackay lead the charge of being able to fill that gap of having that supply chain of goods being made in Australia so we’re not caught in another situation like this,” she said.

Queensland’s Department of State Development, Innovation and Tourism said it was committed to creating a $1-billion sustainable and export-oriented industrial biotechnology and bioproducts sector.

“By 2035, an industrial biotechnology and bioproducts sector could support 6,640 full-time jobs in Queensland,” it said in a statement.

“The sector focusses on the development and manufacture of products such as bioplastics, biofuel, green chemicals, bioenergy, novel food and protein products, plant extractives and personal care, health and wellness.

“The Mackay region is ideally situated for the production of bioplastics with available industrial land, abundant feedstocks, ready access to a container port, local research expertise at CQU, the QUT Mackay Renewable Biocommodity Pilot Plant, and large markets for agricultural and industrial bioplastics.”

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