Redeeming Itself

Wednesday, 11 June 2014

It’s near impossible to dodge plastic in our lives. From medicine to packaging, food to electronics, plastic has firmly entrenched itself in many fundamental aspects of our lives. Every year, about one trillion plastic bags are consumed globally. When you take into consideration all sizes of plastic bags, that number could rise fivefold. The bags can take up to 1,000 years to break down, and images of unsightly plastic in dumps and in the ocean choking wildlife are regular scenes that have pushed the issue to a global scale. While the usefulness of plastic is hard to deny, the damage it wreaks as a result of its long lifespan is giving it some major bad press. This is something Indonesian engineer turned businessman Sugianto Tandio has been working hard at to redress.

Taking over the packaging business his father-in-law started, Sugianto invested a decade of time and money in research and development at Tirta Marta (, to produce a biodegradable alternative from tapioca that makes plastic products which can break down in two years. Cultivation of this non-genetically modified tapioca provides opportunities for farmers to earn a fair trade income from a crop that otherwise offers meagre economic return.

The two main patent-pending products, ECOPLAS and OXIUM, are available as an additive or resin and are being used in the manufacture of shopping bags, packaging, coat hangers, among other products. It costs about 5% more than conventional plastic, but the benefit of much-reduced longevity. Tirta Marta’s products are already in a dozen countries, and enjoy strong penetration in its home market, Indonesia, where it has around 30 manufacturing partners. It has five in China, 10 in Vietnam, a couple in Malaysia and one in Singapore.

Sugianto speaks to STORM about how plastic could redeem itself.

STORM: How did the idea of giving plastic a good reputation come about? SUGIANTO TANDIO: Tirta Marta is a secondgeneration family business that has been dealing with packaging and plastic for over 40 years. We’ve provided packaging for Unilever and other MNCs in Indonesia. I took over the business in 1995 and expanded it. But in 2000 I felt it was important to do a SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) analysis to see what we should do next.

The world uses around 275 million tons of plastic annually. Its growth almost tracks gross domestic product (GDP) figures — China’s GDP is about 8%, Indonesia’s 6-7%, and plastic use follows that. If you think about it, everything that man uses has some form of plastic. Today, there are more than 1,000 types of plastics and millions of applications.

It’s a miracle product. Imagine what we would use if we didn’t have plastic?

Prior to the invention of plastic, everything that needed to be preserved had to be bottled or put in aluminium cans. Those are bulky and expensive. For today’s global population of seven billion, how do you package the food?

It’s too bad the degradation time for plastic is too long.

After the SWOT analysis, we decided to embark upon something unusual for an Asian company. It took us 10 years to find a solution, and we hit the market in 2010. Since then we’ve penetrated lots of markets and won a lot of awards.

We started with shopping bags, which can be divided into modern (branded stores) and traditional (mom and pop shops) markets. We captured 90% of the modern market in Indonesia. Today, all the modern supermarkets in Indonesia are using our biodegradable bags.

STORM: What is the cost of your bag versus previous plastic bags? SUGIANTO: OXIUM is degradable plastic priced almost the same as regular plastic. ECOPLAS is 50% more expensive. Biodegradable plastic is not new. It’s been around for 30–40 years, but is mostly made from corn, which is a staple food in many countries and is probably 300% more expensive to use while disturbing the food chain.

Tapioca, which is what we use, is not a staple diet. It’s a tropical plant grown by many farmers. We picked it for a reason. Besides greening the environment, we are also able to help socially. We get the tapioca from the farmers, and we are the first plastic to have “Fair For Life” certification.

Plastic is made from petroleum, which comes from plankton. By origin, therefore, plastic is organic. If you compare the molecular structure of plastic with that of starch, the molecules combine hydrocarbon chains. Food, which has a polymer chain length less than 100,000 daltons (Da), is easy for microbes to consume. Plastic, however, has chain lengths that are seven million Da long — too long for the microbes to consume. That’s why it will last for hundreds of years. It takes that long for the chain to be broken down.

OXIUM is a catalyst that jump-starts the degradation process. We can tailor the degradation to suit the lifecycle of the product. The checkout bag, for instance, was invented in 1970, and today the world uses about one million a minute. We found out that 90% of people would reuse it as a garbage bag. And then it gets thrown away. So we look at that lifecycle, and figure two years is optimum for that bag to be reused and recycled. We put this two-year degradable period into the bag. This technology is not perfect but it’s better than 500 or 1,000 years. And we can do it at the same price as regular plastic.

STORM: When would you require longer degradation? SUGIANTO: In the modern market, the logistics is fairly straightforward — from the factory directly to the retailer. For the mom-and-pop shops it’s from the factory to the big distributors, then on to smaller distributors. There could be five to six layers involved. Our philosophy is to try and build some safety. Hence, we need a longer timeframe. Meanwhile, we will continue to interview stakeholders, and we will incorporate this information into the manufacturing process.

STORM: How do the plastics manufacturers view what you do? SUGIANTO: We tell them the writing is on the wall, so they need to do something about their business model.

In the last 50 years, manufacturers have become aware that plastic would be a public 60 enemy. Demand is high, but degradation time too long. So, 50 years ago they came up with the 3R strategy — reduce, reuse, recycle. Plastic?is not like steel or glass, which you reheat to 300°C and all the impurities separate naturally. Plastic is organic so you can’t recycle it forever. You?re-melt the plastic around 200°C and all the impurities are still in there. By the third time, it would be very smelly and the strength wouldn’t?be there. Recycling postpones the problem.

We look at ourselves not as a technology company but as a solutions provider. The manufacturers we partner like what we are offering. There are millions of applications, and we can’t get into all of them. After we created the technology we could process it downstream with existing plastic manufacturers, for instance those who create shopping bags, food trays, fork and spoons. To create retail hangers, we?impregnated tapioca resin with rice husk, as the fibre would make it stronger. We could have used different kinds of fibre — like wood fibre — but from a marketing standpoint you are disturbing the forest. Rice husk is natural and people just burn it after a harvest.

There’s plenty of it in Indonesia after the harvest.

STORM: How long does it take to develop a product-specific application? ?SUGIANTO: It takes three to six months to develop the specific technology. We also need to source partners. We could go into production within a year.

STORM: How versatile is it?? SUGIANTO: Our application is for disposable products. Bioplastics are made from renewable resources that are not degradable. For electronics, you want something permanent.

STORM: Do most people care about the impact of plastic on the Earth, or is it just a noisy few?? SUGIANTO: They care a lot...if it’s the same price. There’s a survey done that says 80% will use it if it’s the same price. 10% will use it if it’s 10–20% more expensive. I used to think that in Europe they would be willing to pay more because they are environmentally aware. But I found out that while the technology is there the price is three times more. So it’s not moving.

My European friend pointed out an example of an American company with a slogan championing low prices daily. He said: “Don’t think Americans are willing to pay more. And Europeans are cheaper than Americans.”

STORM: So, what’s your next strategy? SUGIANTO: We are still barely scratching the surface. If we can make all plastic biodegradable, that would be extremely useful. What differentiates soil in the garden from soil in the dessert is the amount of microbes in the soil. So if you can turn all this plastic into food for microbes, it will help to green the planet.