It's a corn job: packing and tableware made from grain

'Green' packaging and tableware, such as plastic plates made from grain, are catching on
Grace Chua & Lester Kok Straits Times 23 Oct 10;

IN THE future, plastic tableware may not be made from oil but from grain, while food cartons and 'paper' plates may be made from agricultural waste, not purpose-grown trees.

Such 'green' packaging and tableware are gaining popularity worldwide. In Singapore, at least five companies have such products, from tableware maker Olive Green to new kid on the block EcoGreen Style which was started just last month.

Abroad, American yogurt maker Stonyfield Farms this month announced it would adopt the plant-based packaging for its cups, while Malaysia's SCGM will begin manufacturing plastic from barley, tapioca and corn for the United States market early next year.

But while production of such greenware does have lower greenhouse gas emissions than conventional plastics, it is far from perfect - the energy that goes into growing the raw materials and shipping the products must be taken into account.

There are different types of the so-called greenware.

One type is oxo-biodegradable: It is mainly made of plastic, but contains additives so that it breaks down much faster than conventional plastics, which can take hundreds of years to degrade.

Cake maker Prima Deli uses oxo-biodegradable plastic bags and cake knives, which also contain wheat bran left over from its flour-milling process.

The plastic products, made in collaboration with local start-up Winrigo and the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Singapore Institute of Manufacturing Technology (SIMTech), emit 30 per cent less carbon dioxide in their manufacturing process than normal plastic.

They cost about 10 per cent more than ordinary bags and knives, but Prima is absorbing the cost as it is 'committed to being a socially responsible corporation', said executive director and general manager Lewis Cheng.

Another type is plastic made partly or entirely from plant material, such as Olive Green's 70 per cent-cornstarch plates and BioBag's range of plastic bags and tableware made from corn.

BioBag has been supplying its partyware products to FairPrice and Meidi-ya supermarkets since mid-2009, and recently to Cheers, a convenience store chain. And the National Parks Board (NParks) has been using such cornware along with non-disposable tableware at its events since 2008, said Mr Kong Yit San, chairman of NParks' environment sustainability committee.

A third type is packaging made wholly from agricultural waste, such as Greentree Packaging and EcoGreen Style's food boxes and meal trays, which are constructed of oil-palm fibre.

Compared to styrofoam or plastic, all three types of packaging have distinct advantages.

Besides being a substitute for petroleum, plants capture carbon as they grow, so they release less total carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Fully plant-based packaging can be turned into compost, and oil-palm boxes use agricultural waste that would otherwise have gone into landfill or been incinerated.

While organic waste is seldom composted in Singapore, even if it is incinerated, it does give off fewer toxic gases than styrofoam or plastic, pointed out Eco-Green Style manager Eugene Wong.

But green products come at a cost - an oil-palm box costs about 20 cents more than a plastic box, while oxo-biodegradable bags cost 10 per cent more than normal ones.

On the environmental front, there are several drawbacks.

Plant plastics are not recyclable as they are designed to break down fast. So they contaminate the conventional plastic recycling stream, explained Mr Edwin Khew, head of waste firm IUT Global, which turns food and organic waste into bio-gas for electricity production.

Conservation International Singapore managing director Landy Eng said bio-plastic bags are an innovative step in the right direction, but noted that the plastic bags - which take three years rather than hundreds of years to degrade - can still clog up waterways and float in the oceans, affecting marine life.

And the carbon footprint and sustainability of growing and shipping raw materials must be taken into account, said Mr Eugene Tay, who runs environmental sites under Green Future Solutions. For instance, turning corn into plastic competes with its use for food.

Mr Howard Shaw from the Singapore Environmental Council, which gave a Green Label to Prima's bio-degradable plastics, said: 'It has a smaller carbon footprint. A sizeable proportion of the raw material is non-fossil based. It reduces the use of fossil fuels as a feedstock.'

Wrong about that 'corn job' claim
Straits Times Forum 30 Nov 10;

AS A manufacturer of green disposable tableware, we would like to contribute our knowledge on how an item that is not made from 100 per cent corn can be 100 per cent biodegradable (Mr Randall Tan, "Going green or just a corn job"; Nov 19).

The definition of the term biodegradable is: Capable of being decomposed by biological agents, especially bacteria.

When micro-organisms break down the disposed product, they are not able to differentiate between the 70 per cent corn starch and the 30 per cent plastic, as both the corn and plastic are technologically assimilated together at the beginning of the production process before they are formed into their desired shapes. The entire product will be indiscriminately broken down.

To claim biodegradability, there are certain international standards that have to be fulfilled. These standards are leading benchmarks of this pioneering bioplastics industry.

To claim a distinction or demarcation between corn and plastic within a bioplastic product would be too simplistic a view. There is a wealth of science involved in the bioplastics technology and not just a simple mixing of corn starch and plastic material in a baking tub.

For bioplastic tableware, biodegradability is not one of the criteria for Singapore Environment Council (SEC) to award the Green Label. This label is given based on the fact that the products are primarily made from renewable materials.

Cheryl Leo (Ms)
Marketing & Communications for Olive Green