Jay CabozBy Jay Caboz|January 20, 2021|6 Minutes|In Entrepreneur

Entrepreneur

Wash it away - A sweet solution to bitter plastic.

Two South African entrepreneurs found a sweet solution to a plastic problem on the other side of the world thanks to a shopping bag that dissolves in water.

It all began with a rumour: a shopping bag in Indonesia that could dissolve in water. Surely not?

The year was 2017, and entrepreneurs Kyle Creese and Nicholas De Beer felt the story could change the way the world deals with plastic. It was in their interest; they were running a small company making plastic medical supplies for the health-care industry.

The story turned out to be true and it planted a seed. The two entrepreneurs switched their business to make bottles that are like plastic – but aren’t. Made from…wait for it…sugar cane.

Joy came in the airport.

“We were on a trip to Indonesia and we found the bags already available in the airport. All the duty-free shops had these bags. Having been involved with manufacturing and packaging medical products for many years we had to see what the bags were all about. There we found the manufacturer who uses extracted plant starch and produces these bags that are water soluble. The technology fascinated us, and we realized we needed to change from using conventional, cheap, plastics,” said Creese.

The Indonesian company was using a special biopolymer made from the starch (dextrose) of the cassava plant, grown and eaten in Africa and Asia. But seeing it work with their own eyes was the inspiration they needed.

“The trip planted the seed, so to speak. It led us to a very in-depth study with some chemical engineers until the formula for bottle and cap worked. Regular plastic production did not work with the material, unfortunately, which also led to challenges and further costs,” said Creese.

So, they went out to find their own sweet spot.

“We did not know it would work. We have been developing it by working as closely as possible with chemical engineers and mechanical engineers on the production of this combination.”

After two years of experimenting, they came up with a solution: Africa’s first zero-plastic bottle made from sugar cane.

This could go a long way toward tackling a big problem in South Africa. South Africa’s plastic waste weighs 1.5 million tonnes every year, according to Plastics SA. This may only be 0.5% of the world’s plastic waste, but only 21% of it is recycled. The rest ends up in rubbish dumps.

“You may already know that conventional plastic takes hundreds of years to decompose. Scientists have said this is approximately 450 years,” said Creese.

The bottles made from sugar cane work like normal plastic bottles but are made without harmful fossil-fuels.

Unlike traditional plastic bottles the sugar cane bottles breakdown in a matter of weeks, rather than centuries. They turn into compost.

Another advantage of sugar cane is that it grows in abundance in both South Africa. According to Creese, on a commercial scale, only 0.02% of the annual global crop is used – only a little bit is good enough for sugar. This means there is plenty to choose from to make bottles.

“We use as many sources as possible, but currently we are discussing with sugarcane growers in KZN to take over the global shortages of resin as a lot of our sugarcane comes from Brazil and India. The bulk of these goes to waste management companies who in turn send them to the industrial composters, nationally.”

Much like how excess sugar cane goes to composting, the sugar can bottle can also be collected and moved to a commercial composting facility. Or you can even do it in your garden.

But while the innovation may save the environment, you won’t save on costs. According to Creese, it is still a lot cheaper to make bottles from plastic that could be with us for the next 450 years.

“Given that consumers prefer to stop using products which destroy the planet, the real benefit is the peace of mind that when using Fortis X products, they are sustainable, plant-based and biodegradable,” said Creese.

So far, the sugar cane bottles are merely made in one corner of Africa. The company can make some 1,1 million bottles a month for Botswana and South Africa. But, Creese says there is interest from companies in Kenya with built-in composting facilities.

In the supermarket refrigerators of Africa, there could soon be a sugarcane mutiny if investors can be found – that’s the story, short and sweet.