Plastic you can drink: A solution for pollution?

Story highlights

  • Balinese company seeks to fight plastic pollution through a sustainable alternative
  • Cassava-based product can be drunk by humans
  • Emerging field of bioplastics is growing rapidly

(CNN)The island of Bali is a jewel of the Indonesian archipelago, a tourist magnet known for idyllic beaches and lush forests.

But the curse of plastic pollution threatens to make this a paradise lost, disfigured by trash-strewn shores and sprawling landfill sites.
Only China dumps more plastic in the ocean than Indonesia, and much of it washes up in Bali.
    The crisis inspired local surfer and entrepreneur Kevin Kumala to find a novel solution.
    "I was with a friend sitting outside a bar and we were seeing hundreds of motorcyclists wearing vinyl ponchos," he recalls. "It clicked that these disgusting, toxic ponchos would be used a few times and then discarded, but they would not decompose."
    The biology graduate resolved to create a better plastic, that would leave no trace.

    Laying roots

    Salvation took the shape of cassava, a cheap and common root vegetable across Indonesia.
    Kumala and his school friend partner studied the emerging field of bioplastics, and took inspiration from new materials based on corn and soy starch. They devised their own recipe using cassava starch, vegetable oil, and organic resins.
    The resulting "100% bio-based" material was biodegradable and compostable, breaking down over a period of months on land or at sea, or instantly in hot water. Kumala claims the bioplastic leaves no trace of toxic residue, a point he demonstrates by dissolving and drinking it.
    "I wanted to show this bioplastic would be so harmless to sea animals that a human could drink it," he says. "I wasn't nervous because it passed an oral toxicity test."
    The entrepreneur launched a company in 2014 selling cassava-plastic ponchos. Today, Avani Eco produces four tons of material a day that is used for products including plastic bags, food packaging, and covers for hospital beds.
    Avani's factory has the capacity to produce five times as much plastic, and the founders hope to push it to the limit.
    Cassava plastic bag from Avani Eco.

    Turning the tide

    Establishing the cassava material as a competitor to traditional plastic has been an uphill struggle.
    Few reliable investors have been prepared to back the venture -- although Avani recently secured funding from a private equity group for the first time.
    "We want to do this on a bigger scale but it depends who gets on the bus," says Kumala.
    Beyond funding, another challenge has been selling the products to businesses despite the "green premium" that makes them more expensive than conventional plastic. Kumala estimates that Avani plastic bags are around twice the price, although some products such as ponchos can be cheaper than vinyl rivals.
    Cassava plastic ponchos; cheaper than some vinyl rivals.
    But the company is well-placed to benefit from a movement for change in Bali. Campaigns such as "Bye Bye Plastic Bags," led by two charismatic teenage girls from the island, have raised awareness of plastic pollution and compelled the government to take action -- recently committing to ban plastic bags by 2018.
    "The government is supporting us and we are working with them to create a roadmap to be plastic-free by 2018," says Kumala. "On an island like Bali it is becoming inevitable that they have to execute right away."
    Donating to "Bye Bye Plastic Bags" campaigners Melati and Isabel Wijsen, who successfully lobbied the Balinese government to ban plastic bags by 2018.