‘WE NEED TO LOOK AT PLASTICS IN A DIFFERENT WAY’
Updated: Dec 25, 2019
Plastics are all around us, but how do we get rid of them without creating new problems? In Jakarta, Lujane Al-Shaibani meets an Indonesian entrepreneur who hopes he has an answer
Single-use plastics; it’s become the buzzword most of us love to hate. But no matter how you feel about Collins Dictionary’s word of 2018, it’s becoming increasingly hard to ignore the need for a viable solution to the packaging waste problem that faces our planet.
In 2019 alone, European Union member states generated some 15.8 million tonnes of packaging waste. Since the 1950s, the world has produced more than nine billion tonnes of plastic, of which 165 million tonnes has ended up in our oceans.
Experts estimate that we have recycled only 9 per cent since then, which suggests that the rest of it lies in landfills or is out there, contaminating the wider environment.
Packaging waste from petroleumbased plastics is not just a problem for the EU. World governments are looking for packaging alternatives, as they fight to save our precious ecosystems from plastics. Getting rid of plastic is not so easy, however. It has many useful applications, to make our food last longer and in medicine.
Could bioplastics offer a solution? Bioplastics are biodegradable materials that come from renewable sources, including vegetable oil, hemp, corn and pea starch that can be used to create many products including packaging. The advantages of using bioplastics include a faster decomposition rate, reduced use of fossil fuels and, in some cases, a smaller carbon footprint.
Bioplastic is also less toxic and does not contain bisphenol A (BPA), a hormone disrupter often found in traditional plastics.
UNDER THE SEA One source of bioplastic that Indonesia based eco innovator and founder of Evoware David Christian is developing is our seas. Evoware aims to build a business around plastics and social responsibility.
Turning seaweed into bioplastic could create new ways for Indonesian farmers and coastal communities to earn a living
Indonesia is second only to China in contributing to the world’s plastic pollution. The Indonesian government has pledged to spend US$1 billion a year tackling this issue, which, as well as being unsightly, is contaminating the country’s rivers and seas. Christian launched Evoware in 2016, aiming to find new, innovative solutions to Indonesia’s waste problem. Evoware is making bioplastic from seaweed, harvested along the coasts of Indonesia’s many islands, as an alternative to conventional petroleumbased plastics.
Farmers pick and clean the seaweed. Evoware processes the seaweed into sheets to form packaging materials. Turning seaweed into bioplastic could create new ways for Indonesian farmers and coastal communities to earn a living. “We need to look at plastics in a different way,” Christian says.
Evoware’s first launch was the Ello Jello edible cup, food that works as tableware, available in a choice of colours and four flavours – orange, lychee, peppermint and green tea. Having drunk from the single-use Ello Jello cup, you can then eat it as a snack. If you’re not hungry, the cup biodegrades within 30 days and doubles-up as plant fertiliser.
Christian launched Ello Jello as a fun product, to lead a campaign to educate school children and their parents about the benefits of bioplastics. He believes consumers will play a critical role, in driving investment in new packaging formats and technologies that are less polluting than conventional plastics, which is why it matters to raise awareness of alternatives that may one day launch market wide.
In October 2017 Evoware launched its second product, Seaweed-Based Packaging; tasteless and odourless packaging that can replace conventional packaging, including small-format food wraps, coffee and condiment sachets and soap packaging.
This, too, is edible – although it is also fully biodegradable and dissolves in warm water. The packaging is halalcertified and has a two-year shelf life.
Although the prototype materials are colourless and tasteless, Evoware can tailor the packaging to suit different brands.
With conventional plastics, it is impractical to recycle them if they are soiled with food or other biological substances. As this is all too often the case, most packaging waste goes straight to landfill; smaller quantities are recycled, incinerated or composted.
Evoware believes its biodegradable alternatives can eradicate waste; users simply decide whether to eat the packaging or compost it.
IMPACT ASSESSMENT The tricky question, when it comes to sustainability, is that greener alternatives all too often have unforeseen effects. Turning seaweed into bioplastics sounds like a sustainable solution – but what impact would harvesting large amounts of seaweed have on coastal ecosystems and marine life?
Evoware’s seaweed takes around 40 days to grow and the farmers collect it in large amounts in rotation. “We plant it in one area, then collect it. Then we plant more in another area,” Christian says.
He sees the main challenge as an economic one. Although Indonesia is the world’s top exporter of seaweed, those who harvest it are among the poorest in the country. The industry has a long supply chain.
The farmers recoup the smallest share of the profits, making them “the most powerful but least paid” in the supply chain, Christian says.
Evoware has pledged to pay the seaweed farmers above the market rate.
The question now is whether Evoware can turn edible seaweed packaging into a viable business, at home and abroad. The company is still in its start-up phase.
The challenge, Christian says, lies mostly in “scaling up from small to large production, [which] has been an issue due to machinery”.
The company hopes to invest in new equipment, working with engineers to build suitable machinery, anticipating that the business will attract more international orders, driving growth.
But Evoware aims to position itself as a socially responsible business, campaigning to raise awareness of plastic pollution, to persuade people to change their behaviour.
Top of the list is tackling waste. Evoware’s Rethink Campaign aims to change the way consumers behave towards the environment. It wants us to be more prepared and has launched the Rethink Kit, a zero-waste essentials kit that aims to persuade ten million people to clean up their act.
Changing people’s ways – and persuading the world’s largest manufacturers to step away from plastic packaging – will not be easy. But it is global take-up, and investor backing, that will turn alternative packaging materials from eco-niche businesses into a viable industry and stop the deluge of plastics clogging up our rivers and seas.
The linear model of consumer society, based on take-make-dispose, has come at vast cost to our environment. Could packaging that generates less waste tackle that pollution and play a role in sustainable development?