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We're a small startup company looking to make products using ingredients solely derived from plants. One of the main ingredients in one of our products is polyvinyl alcohol (PVA). We have found a company that claims that their PVA is made exclusively from plants, and that no natural gas or crude oil is used in its production.

To provide some extra clarification based on the discussion below this question: PVA is a synthetic polymer prepared by hydrolysis of polyvinyl acetate. Polyvinyl acetate is made from acetic acid and ethylene. Ethylene is often made from natural gas or petroleum. Is it possible to determine whether the original ethylene used to make our PVA is derived from petroleum or plants? If so, can this be done given just the PVA itself, and no other information?

The reason I'm asking is because I want to independently verify the manufacturer's claim that their product is indeed completely derived from plant sources.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't think there is any plant or tree which makes polyvinyl alcohol. It is purely a synthetic polymer. Contact the manufacturer and ask them more details. $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    May 30, 2020 at 15:35
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    $\begingroup$ I agree with @ M. Farooq. PVA is purely a synthetic polymer. Your version of natural or synthetic probably based of its starting material, vinyl acetate? $\endgroup$ May 30, 2020 at 16:19
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    $\begingroup$ Nor is there a "natural" source of vinyl acetate as it is a highly unstable with respect to hydrolysis to acetaldehyde. The feedstock for vinyl acetate production is ethylene or acetylene (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vinyl_acetate). How many industrial processes does a material need to go through before it ceases to be "natural"? $\endgroup$
    – Waylander
    May 30, 2020 at 16:53
  • $\begingroup$ PVA is indeed a synthetic polymer prepared by hydrolysis of polyvinyl acetate. Polyvinyl acetate is made from acetic acid and ethylene. Ethylene is often made from natural gas or petroleum. My question took the shortcut of omitting this process in its description. Perhaps a better way to phrase my question would be: is it possible to determine whether the original ethylene is derived from petroleum or plants? $\endgroup$
    – Jurriën
    May 31, 2020 at 1:05
  • $\begingroup$ All oil-based chemicals are, ultimately, derived from plants, just 100m year-old plants. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Dec 8, 2020 at 11:36

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It certainly would be possible to get an indication of some of the sources of carbon through mass spectrometry and through radiocarbon dating. For example, fossil carbon sources would have little 14C, sources predating the 20th century, e.g. older trees, would have more. Post-Atomic Age sources might have more yet, beyond that due to natural decay of 14C.

That said, it's a nice question, but are you prepared to pay for the analysis to have it answered? Perhaps your government might perform such testing to verify a claim of being "organically produced".

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  • $\begingroup$ Thanks, that's an interesting avenue to explore! And yes, I'd be willing to pay for the analysis. $\endgroup$
    – Jurriën
    May 31, 2020 at 6:31
  • $\begingroup$ I believe your suggested approach is described in "Determination of the Biobased Content in Plastics by Radiocarbon" by Quarta et al. (2013) $\endgroup$
    – Jurriën
    May 31, 2020 at 11:37
  • $\begingroup$ This is actually a well-known technique for testing whether drinkable alcohol is made from industrial synthesis or fermentation. $\endgroup$
    – matt_black
    Dec 9, 2020 at 19:30

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