Indonesia is the second worst maritime polluter in the world but the 11,000 islands that make up this nation also produce one of the most environmentally sound alternatives to single-use plastics.
Evoware is a company that uses Indonesian-grown seaweed to make an edible, water permeable film used in sachets that hold tea, coffee, and hot cocoa as well as flavor packets for instant soup. Founded in April 2016 by 25-year-old David Christian and three partners, last year the firm was awarded a $1 million Circular Design Challenge grant by the European Union and is now concluding its participation in the New Plastic Economy Accelerator Program. The program is sponsored by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
The heat-sealable 6cm x 6cm sachets readily infuse in hot water. The film is pleasantly opaque, largely odorless and tasteless, and dissolves in warm water. It has a two-year shelf life, even without preservatives. It is edible and nutritious with high fiber content, minerals, and essential vitamins. The film is manufactured to HACCP food-safe standards and is printable using natural colored dyes.
Evoware films biodegrade in soil and water within 30 days and make a great fertilizer when discarded.
Christian explains that plant-based plastics biodegrade in soil and can be environmentally sound packaging, they suffer a shared flaw—they don’t degrade in seawater.
Jacqueline McGlade, chief scientist at the United Nations Environment Programme, explained to The Guardian that while well intentioned “a lot of plastics labeled biodegradable, like shopping bags, will only break down in temperatures of 50 Centigrade (155 degrees Fahrenheit) and that is not the ocean. They are also not buoyant, so they’re going to sink, so they’re not going to be exposed to UV light and break down.”
Only one percent of marine plastics are found floating at or near the ocean surface.
“Plastics are contaminating everything, our air, our food and even our water,” says Christian who points out that a switch to seaweed would also enhance the livelihood of hundreds of thousands of Indonesians who grow and process seaweed. Indonesia produces 10 million metric tons of seaweed annually, a number the country hopes to double in the next few years. Strings of these plants mature in 45 days. Ocean farming does not require fertilizer, and a single hectare (two acres) of shallow ocean floor yields 40 metric tons of dry seaweed. During this cycle the plants absorb 20.7 tons of carbon dioxide as they give off copious amounts of oxygen.
Evoware’s edible food wrapper is currently used to seal Belgium-style waffles, protein bars (nothing to pack out on a hike) and to seal burgers, making them drip free. Sachets are used by noodle soup manufacturers in place of flavor packets made of non-degradable aluminum-film that is too small to recycle.
These sachets dissolve along with the instant coffee and tea they contain. Experiments are underway to determine their usefulness with micro ground coffee and tea leaves, two beverages where a different formulation allows the film to retain its shape. Soap packets, for example, protect and conserve the bars of soap and then biodegrade in backyard composting conditions.
The company’s first product was an edible drinking cup that is compostable, biodegradable, nutritious, takes dyes, and can be flavored. The Ello Jello edible cup debuted at the What’s Up Café coffee chain in Jakarta and is used by ice cream retailer Ong Tek Tjan. Customers can get a refill or simply eat the colorful firm gel cups after finishing their drink or dessert. Flavors include peppermint, green tea, lychee and orange.
Christian acknowledges that the cost of the Ello Jello cups, which is several times higher than plastic, is a challenge. He points out that harvesting and processing is still largely done by hand. Demand will invite large-scale solutions and a significant reduction in cost, he says. The seaweed films are priced as a practical alternative to flavoring packets. A 21cm x 26cm sheet sells for $0.46 which is $0.001 per square centimeter. Depending on material, a flexible film package in 25,000 quantity might cost about 10 times less.
Pricing is one factor, but politics is also playing a part.
Bans by cities, countries, and soon the entire European Union make non-traditional packaging materials viable alternatives. The headwinds that plastic straw manufacturers encounter are tailwinds for paper straw manufacturers. Across the world, plastics make up 85 percent of marine litter. The 10 most frequently discarded single-use plastics make up 70 percent of all marine litter. This is why the European Commission voted to ban single-use food containers, bottles, and drink cups where alternatives exist. In March 2019, the 28 countries that make up the European Union are expected to adopt the ban.