In Mumbai, where bags clog the stormwater drains in monsoon season, to China, where bags are dubbed ‘the white pollution’, and even the world’s oceans, which reputedly host around 17 830 pieces of plastic per square kilometre - the plastic bag is a blight on the landscape.
Seeking to reduce the estimated 3 billion ultra-thin plastic bags used every day in China, the government banned retailers from giving out free bags less than 0.025 millimetres thick – and claims to have reduced the use of single-use bags by 66 per cent in less than five years.
Enter tapioca, a stringy, palm-like plant with two to three harvests per year, which Paul Norell, COO of US company Ecopia, describes as a tropical weed. Ecopia have teamed with Indonesian inventor Sugianto Tandio to commercialise and market tapioca-based Ecoplas as a biodegradable and reusable alternative to single-use plastic bags, as well as injection-moulded single-use packaging.
They made it to the semi-finals of the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open, and are already creating sustainable packaging for Billabong, Nickelodeon and other American brands.
“Ecoplas is a resin, a new polymer made from tapioca starch at a molecular level, and is a material that is an alternative to regular plastics,” explains Norell. “When Ecoplas material is exposed to common microbes, they will attach to the material and consume it over time.”
Sugianto Tandio worked in the USA in 3M’s Dormant Patents division before returning to Indonesia to assist with his father’s plastics factory. Back home he marvelled at the amount of plastic garbage collecting around the streets and waterways.
Seeking a starch base to replace the oil-based polymers in plastic, he turned to tapioca and developed a way to inexpensively harvest, dry and transform the root of the plant into a plastic that would work effectively with conventional injection-molding machines.
Ecopia’s mantra includes using non-GMO crops (like tapioca), purchasing tapioca starch from developing countries at fair rates under Fair for Life certification, and using simple water and energy-efficient technologies. Norell describes them as a “technology company who provide finished goods”.
Right now their focus is on making reusable, biodegradable plastic bags and simple, injection-moulded display items like shoe hooks. The technology also suits plastic bottles and “holds liquid beautifully”, but right now the company is focusing on a product that falls neatly between a covetable, reusable, high-end thick plastic bag and
A few years ago there was a standoff in California between the organic farmers and the producers and marketers of compostable plastic items. The issue was that starch-based plastics, which represent around 50 per cent of the bioplastics market, were blended with biodegradable polyesters.
Organic farmers were refusing to accept this synthetic component as an
organic product, but as the CEO from Pak-Sher, a leader in compostable packaging, says: “If you want the performance of traditional plastics – stretch, temperature resistance, sealability – at this point in time, some of the material needs to be derived from petroleum”.
Ecoplas is 61 per cent tapioca starch and 39 per cent ‘barefoot’ polyethylene, and the company promises that all contents ultimately end up as carbon, water and biomass. It’s a solution that will have Mumbai’s drains flowing and the farmers of Indonesia smiling.