Just about every magazine today is offering tips on how to live a more “eco-friendly” lifestyle and you can hardly open a newspaper without a reference to the impact of global warming. Even our Finance Minister, Trevor Manuel, has been heard uttering the word “green” when it comes to the national budget. So, it should come as no surprise that that consumer demand for a biodegradable alternative to plastic is becoming hard to ignore.
Outside of South Africa, supermarket chains like Sainsburys, Wal-Mart and Marks & Spencers already have products on their shelves in biodegradable packaging. In Europe alone the consumption of biodegradable plastics or, bioplastics as they are often referred to, in 2003 doubled from 2001, with a consumption of 40, 000 tons per annum. According to a leading website in the food production industry, it has been predicted that that the bioplastics market will grow by 20% per year.
Catherine Morris, Managing Director of Green Home, the first company to distribute biodegradable food containers in South Africa, says that progress in bio-technology has led to the development of biodegradable alternatives which look and feel exactly like conventional packaging. Morris says: “The environmental impact between the two, however, is enormous”.
Conventional packaging like polystyrene products are petroleum-based which is a limited resource and takes up to hundreds of years to degrade. According to Morris, the production of these plastics is highly toxic, and incineration carries the added danger of releasing toxic fumes into the atmosphere which poses a threat not only to the environment, but also personal health. The alternatives, on the other hand, are made from natural and renewable plant resources such as corn, sugar, wood or soya, and have a significantly lower environmental impact during manufacture. More importantly, unlike petroleum-based products, these biodegrade into water, CO2 and compost in a matter of weeks.
“In South Africa, landfill waste has increased between 12 and 14% in two years. We need to reduce our waste production. And where we have to use disposable packaging, it needs to be compostable and made from renewable resources.” says Morris.
However, there have been concerns over the impact that the growing demand for biofuel and bioplastics will have on water supply, deforestation and soil erosion. Many critics have warned that the move towards using food crops likes maize, soya and potatoe starch would encourage unsustainable, mono-crop agriculture which has already had a devastating effect on the land. The counter-argument has been that the introduction of bioplastics (as well as biofuel) has to be accompanied by a sustainable approach to farming practices. “Crop rotation and other forms of sustainable agriculture, like Permaculture are options in the move towards replacing oil with renewable forms of energy – but the government needs to come to the party”, says John Pistorius of Bioman Energy, a leading manufacturer of biodiesel processors in the country.
In South Africa, the bioplastics industry could potentially revitalize a struggling agricultural industry as more and more farmers are finding it difficult to turn their land into profit. “There is so much undeveloped land in the country”, says, Pistorius, “the government should be supporting the agricultural sector from the point of view of developing farmers”.
A larger South African agricultural economy would inevitably secure better government protection of the agricultural sector and provide much needed employment – especially in the rural areas. Here, in South Africa, desertification is a greater concern than deforestation, and is often a direct result of unsustainable and abandoned farming practices. A revived agricultural economy has the potential to slow down and even reverse this process.
Arguably, the most pressing concern has to do with the way in which the demand for biofuel (and now bioplastics) has pushed up the price of food products like corn and wheat. Corn is already at its highest level in a decade on the Chicago Board of Trade and growing demand for biofuel might increase prices even further. However, it would seem that internationally, there is a growing certainty that the world has enough agricultural resources for both food and fuel and that, if managed correctly, there is room for biofuel / bioplastic production as well as food security. The European Commission has issued a mandatory biofuel target of 10 percent of all vehicle fuels by 2020 – a level that officials say will not discourage farmers from growing crops for food. In the United States, industry officials claim that they will be able to produce enough corn in coming years to meet the domestic demand for food and ethanol, in addition to meeting its export obligations.
Ultimately, using food crops like corn to replace fuel is regarded as an interim measure to solving the fuel crisis. “We need to experiment; it’s a new field, the shortest cut has been the food crop – just to get the ball rolling – then we need to look around for other options.” Says Pistorius who is also investigating alternatives like algae. “Algae is definitely something we’re going to be exploring. We need to get further down the road but we need to do something in the interim.”
In South Africa, provided the market is prepared for these adjustments, a higher selling price of agricultural produce is exactly what local farmers have been desperate for. A higher selling price means greater profitability in the agricultural sector, thereby raising employment levels, curbing desertification and putting more money back into sustainable land use practices, as well as providing a greater food supply. This will require government involvement, planning and protection. Clearly, it is not going to be an easy task to wean ourselves off our dependency on oil but the reality is, do we really have a choice?
Raffaella Delle Donne is a free-lance writer and activist.