business environment food waste

Cassava plastic – good enough to eat?

When I was reading about ocean plastic recently, it was interesting to learn where it comes from. The biggest sources of plastic waste aren’t advanced consumer economies, but middle income countries where consumer goods are widely available, but waste processing systems aren’t yet in place. All sorts of waste is being generated in packaging, but little of it is being recycled or disposed of properly. Until that waste processing infrastructure is put in place, plastic escapes into the natural environment.

China, Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam and Indonesia are responsible for half the world’s ocean plastic between them, so it was good to hear of an innovative solution from the region recently. A company in Indonesia is producing biodegradable plastic made from cassava starch. As Kevin Kumala from Avani Eco demonstrates, their plastic bags dissolve in warm water and are safe enough to drink:

Cassava is a commonly grown plant in many parts of the world. You might know it as yuca. In Madagascar it was called manioc, and in Britain we encounter it as tapioca. It’s a staple for many, which is a shame, because it scores pretty low on the nutrition front and has little to offer beyond carbohydrates. In fact, it’s rich in ‘antinutrients’ and even poisons. Unless you prepare it properly, it inhibits nutrition and can make you sick.

It might be worth the trouble if it was delicious, but it’s not exactly a taste sensation either. I’m one of the least fussy eaters you’ll ever meet. There are about three things I can think of that I don’t really like, and top of the list is bitter manioc.

The main advantage of cassava, and the reason that it remains a staple food across so much of Africa, is that it’s hardy. It’s drought resistant and grows on poor soils. You’re still likely to get a cassava crop even if everything else fails, so it’s a useful back-up food. Some cultures value it more, but in Madagascar it was considered a poor person’s food, for those who couldn’t afford rice.

So here we have a widely available crop that can grow on marginal land, but that has little food value and isn’t particularly tasty. To me, it looks like a perfect candidate for bioplastic – though there’s really no reason to drink the dissolved plastic afterwards, other than for PR purposes.

Avani are producing four tonnes of bioplastic a day, a small start on an enormous problem, but with room to grow. Plastic waste is on the Indonesian government’s agenda, with plans to reduce waste by 70% by 2025. A trial tax on plastic bags halved their use last year, and there are hopes that it will be rolled out permanently. That would help to make cassava bags competitive, as they’re twice the price of normal plastic at the moment. They’re also exporting their process to other countries that have already banned plastic bags, and where demand for alternatives is higher. That includes Madagascar, which banned the thinnest ones in 2015, and a local company called GasyPlast began making cassava plastic bags last year.

7 comments

  1. This is not an innovation, its quite old – and has been rejected because it is not biodegradeable, and does not help the indonesian plastic problem at all.
    Indonesia has a plastic problem not because of micro-plastcs in the sea (thats more a global problem) but because of plastic waste, still in plastic form.
    These plastics,( like PLA), only break down in water if you boil them , (and despite the claims that you could drink the solution, it’s not advised, and noone has proven that its safe for insects to eat yet).
    These bags stay in the ocean, and on land, unchanged just like all other plastic bags (except Seaweed plastics) – and will block up sewage systems, block up animals digestion systems, etcetc – just like other plastic bags.
    Fake advertising….. Greenwash.

    1. If a company gives you a plastic bag that you can dissolve in hot water, and you choose to throw it in the garbage instead, that’s hardly the company’s fault. Of course people might not dispose of them properly, and ultimately the big challenge is to reduce single use plastics, not replace them with bioplastics. But there’s always going to be a role for a certain amount of plastic in packaging, and (some) bioplastics are better and safer than the fossil fuel equivalents.

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