The world seems to be collapsing under the weight of plastic being used in everything, from cellphones and shampoo to food packaging and the machines flying into space. Plastic is found in the stomachs of dead whales and in the water people drink. But this disaster is also driving a global response, with companies cutting down on the use of plastic and finding alternatives to it.
In Cape Town, one packing company is producing biodegradable bottles from polymers made from plant starches.
FortisX, which manufactures packaging for the medical and health industry, went into full production last month. Its plant can manufacture two million bottles from corn, potato and sugarcane starch each month.
The company is already supplying biodegradable bottles to local and international clients, less than two years after starting to experiment with biodegradable alternatives.
The bottles, made from polylactic acid extracted from plant-based dextrose, are suitable for still water, juices, milk and pulps. The polymer doesn’t have a gas barrier, so it can’t hold carbonated drinks and sparkling water.
The plant starch has to be imported from Europe.
FortisX chief executive Nicholas de Beer says they had been “pleasantly surprised” by the results of tests after they tried various biopolymers on existing product lines.
“This led us now into the production of plastic bottles and caps. It was a natural progression for us to take,” he says.
“This is a much more responsible product to supply to the market. The biodegradation has been confirmed by two major composting firms, so we are very happy with the results.”
De Beer says they are now testing how to produce plant-based bottles that can hold carbonated drinks.
The plastic-free bottle technology has attracted the attention of Air Water, another innovative Cape Town-based company.
Its owner, Ray de Vries, says the biodegradable bottles “really caught my attention” because they solve a problem for companies that want to find an alternative to plastic bottles.
His company bottles water drawn from the humidity in the air, by cooling it down until it condenses and drops into a tank. It’s then filtered nine times and further purified using ultraviolet light. This means water doesn’t have to be stored in dams, rivers or reservoirs — a centralised and expensive way of moving drinking water around.
The water is then bottled in glass bottles with steel caps.
De Vries says: “We measure our success in the number of plastic bottles we save the Earth from. The money comes after that.”
De Vries has one suburban bottling plant in Hout Bay — now in its second year of operation — which is producing 30 000 to 50 000 bottles of water a month. A second is being set up at Mossel Bay and a third, at Helderberg near Somerset West, is in the pipeline. He has identified four more sites around the country for development in the future. This will mean people can get water from factories near them, cutting down on pollution from trucks transporting the bottles of water.
Air Water supplies 30 restaurants and retailers around Hout Bay, collecting the empty 330ml and 660ml bottles when it makes its next delivery of water.
De Vries says: “Customers are loving it. We can supply water in a thick, glass bottle that is difficult to break at the same prices as a plastic bottle of water.
“We are selling water, not the container, so they return the bottles, which removes the constant cost that would be associated with producing plastic bottles.
“This is a completely different movie. This is a model that is sustainable and responsible. Profitability drives business, business drives jobs and more business and more jobs mean more money, and a happier Earth, by reducing the number of plastic bottles by up to a million a year,” he says.
“For us to make the world more green, it has to be a profitable process. That is what will drive business to go about things the right way. What we’re doing here, in a way, is taking water back 50 years to the era when milk was delivered to your doorstep in a glass bottle that was returned. This is the same model.”
De Vries, who says he invested “everything I had” in the bottling project, is targeting the tourism market, which consumes up to 250 000 bottles of water a month during high season.
Because it is a global industry, the local tourism industry is working hard to stop using plastic bottles. This creates a huge opportunity for companies to produce glass or biodegradable bottles.
And the hotel industry regulations banning glass bottles next to pools has also created a niche for the sugarcane technology.
“I believe in beach and river clean-ups, but that’s at the end of the line. We need to nip the plastic problem in the bud at the other end, at the source,” says De Vries.
His words would have once come across as idealistic, but with so much plastic pollution plaguing the world, the market for solutions is exploding. FortisX and Air Water are two local examples of companies seizing the opportunity to do things differently. Smaller industries, closer to where their product is used, and working with ecologically friendly materials, are growing to meet demand.