Recipe for a plastic-free future includes bananas, cassavas and corn starch

While there needs to be more research into whether bioplastics are truly benign or nontoxic, the core issue - human behaviour - remains the same.

Girls hold biopolymers bags made from cassava will degrade into harmless substances as litter. Courtesy Avani
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From bottles to bags, plastic is everywhere and how it is disposed of is precarious at best. Yet, there is a growing worldwide movement focused on rethinking its reuse to create materials that will not beharmful to the environment.

Kevin Kumala dips a piece of green plastic film into a glass of water.

The online video showing what happens next has so far received 70 million views and is the reason his company is receiving 3,000 to 4,000 emails a day.

As he stirs the contents of the glass, the film quickly dissolves, the water turning a light green. The entrepreneur then swallows the water, his “green drink, for a greener Indonesia”.

“The point I was trying to put across was not for human beings to consume this, but to show that this is so eco-friendly that even a human being who eats and drinks it is still alive,” he says.

Mr Kumala and his company, Avani, are part of a global effort to create safer alternatives to plastic.

Rather than fighting the utility of single-use items such as shopping bags, straws and takeaway cups, their approach is to re-engineer them from materials that will not harm the environment.

Plastic polymers are extremely durable and while this is a useful quality, it becomes an environmental hazard when they are disposed of, especially if they escape into the environment as rubbish.

According to Dianna Cohen, chief executive and co-founder of the Plastic Pollution Coalition, a US-based environmental organisation, Americans alone discard more than 30 million tonnes of plastic a year. Of this, only 8 per cent is recycled.

“The rest ends up in landfills or becomes litter, while a small portion of it is burnt becoming air-particulate pollution,” she says.

As an avid surfer and diver, Mr Kumala has seen first-hand the effects of plastic debris in Bali, Indonesia, which he left for a few years to study in the US, returning in 2009.

“Bali was considered to be a pristine island and a heaven for surfers and divers,” he says. “But fast-forward a few years and the whole landscape and the whole ocean and beaches have changed dramatically.”

This is why he hired a team of scientists to create a material with plastic-like qualities manufactured not from petroleum products but from the remains of the cassava plant, a food staple in Indonesia.

The formula was patented in 2014 but it took more time to fine tune so that it is durable enough but also degradable and non-toxic.

Last year, the cassava bioplastic film went to market, replacing polyethylene in anything from shopping and laundry bags, to aprons and bin liners.

The company also sells materials made from corn starch and sugar-cane fibre to replace plastic straws and styrofoam food packaging. So far, 70 per cent of the company’s customers are based in Bali, but there are orders from Australia, Madagascar, Fiji and Vanuatu.

“We are working closely with the government and trying to make this as the standard because Indonesia is actually the second-biggest marine polluter in the world,” said Mr Kamala.

In Florida, Saltwater Brewery has created edible “six-pack rings” out of the barley and wheat-ribbon by-products of processing.

Closer to home, entrepreneur Ashwath Hegde started the Go Green Qatar campaign last February. The campaign, which was under the patronage of the ministry of municipalities and environment, included the distribution to residents of 50,000 bags made from bioplastic film.

The bags were manufactured in a pilot project by the Indian entrepreneur, who later started a manufacturing facility in his homeland.

The factory produces 1,000 tonnes of film per month. Mr Hegde’s company, Envigreen Biotech India, is about to patent six formulas, based on cassava, sugar cane, banana peels and other organic fibres. The products dissolve in hot water and release no toxic fumes if burnt, he says.

Mr Hegde is appointing distributors for the Middle East. Large supermarket chains and other retailers, including those in the UAE, have shown interest.

If the response is good, the company is ready to start manufacturing in the Gulf.

Although his products are slightly more expensive than plastic – Dh16 to Dh17 per kilogram versus Dh12 for plastic – “when it comes to paper or cloth bags, we are much cheaper”, said Mr Hegde.

Ms Cohen said that rethinking how to make single-use products to take into account how they would degrade or be recycled could “dramatically reduce the amount of plastic pollution on land and in the oceans”.

“People need to vote with their dollars to support these products,” she says.

Still, the coalition advocates avoiding waste in the first place.

“There have been some promising inventions: a water bottle made from algae, plastic bags made from starch that dissolves in water,” she says.

“But for everyday use we advocate for reusables over disposables. Bring your own cloth bags to the market and your own cup when you’re out. Bring a reusable glass, steel bottle or Thermos.”

While there needs to be more research into whether bioplastics are truly benign or non-toxic, the core issue remains the same.

“It’s our behaviour and our value for instant convenience over long-term public and environmental health that has created this plastic pollution issue to begin with,” says Ms Cohen.

“We need to rethink disposability entirely, to consider how we move beyond producing so much individual waste.”

Francesco Ciardelli, a professor in macromolecular chemistry at the University of Pisa, shared a similar opinion.

“In a controlled disposal it would be better to have non-biodegradable material because it can be recycled,” he says. “The biodegradability is necessary for a society producing a lot of waste.”

Biodegradable plastic has useful applications for agriculture where materials can become fertiliser with time.

Still, people should not automatically assume all plastics of biological origin are non-toxic and companies have a responsibility to share the full details about their products, he says.“Having bioplastic is important but we have to use this correctly, people should not think that if they use bioplastic they can do everything,” says Prof Ciardelli.