On the beautiful island of Bali, there is a plastics material being produced which is so safe that it can be dissolved into a consumable drink.

 What we’re talking about are bioplastics.

Founder Kevin Kumala, along with his partners, found right there on their home island a common root vegetable, the cassava, could be used to create new bioplastics. They created a recipe that incorporates organic resins, vegetable oil, and cassava starch to produce a 100% bio-based material that is completely compostable.

If their bioplastic material is discarded in the ocean, it will break down within 12 months. If you place their product in hot water, it will dissolve immediately. According to Kumala, no toxic residues are left behind. He has even dissolved the bioplastic in water, and drank it himself to prove his point.

Cassava Plastics Have Been Produced Since 2014

According to a CNN report, Kumala got his inspiration from the plastic parkas he used to see littering beaches all the time. He wanted to create something that was still affordable and disposable without making a negative impact on the environment.

That inspiration became the seed of his company, called Avani Eco. They started selling ponchos made from the cassava bioplastics in 2014. Today, the company is producing 4 tons of material each day that is used in various products. You’ll find Avani Eco bioplastics used for food packaging, plastic shopping bags, and even covers for hospital beds.

Although the product seems like it would be common sense to use, finding investors to back the venture has been a struggle. It took Kumala almost 3 years to find a private equity group that was willing to support them.

Dealing with the “Green Premium” for Bioplastics

The other issue that bioplastics face is that they are more expensive to produce than traditional plastics. Using plastic bags from Avani Eco, for example, cost twice as much than what the conventional shopping bags made from plastic cost.

Although some of their products, such as their bioplastic poncho, are cost-competitive with their vinyl counterparts, the key to reduced costs for consumers is to boost production levels. Avani Eco is currently capable of producing up to 20 tons of cassava bioplastics daily, but sadly they are only operating at only 20% of that projection. 

What needs to be understood is the overall cost of replacing traditional plastics with bioplastics. Traditional plastics do not degrade sufficiently to reduce risk to the marine environments all over the world. It does not take long to search for a location on the globe that has huge islands of floating trash that have conglomerated into masses as large as states or even small countries. We have seen sailors, divers, and sometimes even tourists rescuing whales, sharks, turtles and other marine life from entanglement in varieties of plastic and netting. More disturbing are the creatures washed up dead onshore that have starved to death with stomachs full of plastic and trash. This is disgraceful and irresponsible and must be stopped. Our thoughtlessness will continue to lead to the extinction of many more species. The   financial toll of all of this is staggering and incalculable. 

Humankind (or unkind, however you may consider them) is not going to give up the convenience of disposable packaging and discard able items anytime soon. What has to happen is a faster than slow transition from harmful products to these new safer alternatives. There are huge costs on the back end of the traditional use of plastics, recycling on land and ocean collection efforts are monumental. With this new knowledge comes the responsibility to act accordingly.  If we are willing to pay a bit more on the front end to reduce or eliminate on the back end the earth and ocean environments will be a healthier and happier places.

What is exciting about this emerging industry is that various other feedstocks could be used for bioplastics as well. Many waste products like shrimp shells, nut shells, barley and wheat by-products, have up until now been simply thrown away, but are now proving to have new and purposeful uses.

In time, as these new product ideas find their way into mainstream markets there may be subsidies or preferential purchasing treatment, or just newer and better ideas and technologies to reduce the costs of bioplastics verses traditional plastics.

These ideas may not be a 100% pure solutions to protect the environment, but they are a step forward in the right direction. By reducing the consumption of traditional plastics, we minimize the impact we make each day on the environment.