If you buy a Belgian waffle at a food festival this weekend in Ubud, Bali, you’ll be able to eat the wrapper it comes in. A waffle vendor is one of the early customers testing new food packaging made from seaweed instead of plastic: The wrapper is nutritious if it’s eaten, and if it ends up as litter, it naturally biodegrades.
David Christian, cofounder of Evoware, the Indonesia-based startup that designed the new packaging, tells Fast Company. Indonesia is second only to China in creating plastic pollution that ends up on the ocean, mostly coming from single-use packaging; four Indonesian rivers are among the most polluted in the world. Garbage dumps in Bali are often overflowing.
As a material, seaweed has some obvious advantages to oil-based plastic beyond the fact that it doesn’t create waste. While seaweed grows, it sucks up CO2. An area of ocean roughly the size of a baseball field can grow 40 tons of seaweed in a year, absorbing 20.7 tons of greenhouse gases.
Because the new packaging dissolves in hot water, the startup plans to use it to begin to replace packages like the tiny plastic sachets filled with seasoning in instant noodles. Instead of struggling to open the package, you drop the whole thing in your bowl of ramen and stir it in. It can also be used for instant coffee, which is popular in Indonesia.
One challenge, Christian says, is that despite the abundance of plastic waste, Indonesians don’t yet recognize a need to solve the problem. “The awareness, understanding, and sense of urgency to minimize the use of single-use plastic is still very low,” he says. “This makes our bioplastic seems irrelevant and ‘unnecessary.’” The seaweed-based packaging is more expensive to produce than plastic, though costs will come down as the company moves from pilot production to full-scale manufacturing.