This year, the World Environment Day was commemorated on 5 June with the theme, “Beat Plastic Pollution”. This theme is a reminder that people’s actions on plastic pollution matters, and governments and businesses can take steps to accelerate a transition to a circular economy.
Plastic is a synthetic material derived from petroleum. It is widely used because of its affordability, convenience, and utility for a variety of applications that include packaging, building and construction, household and sports equipment, healthcare, vehicles, electronics among others. However, the durability of plastic has negative effects on the environment, biodiversity, climate, and health. A 2021 report by the United Nations Environmental Programme (UNEP) estimates that 19 to 23 million tonnes of plastic leak into aquatic ecosystems annually. These harm a wide array of organisms in the rivers, lakes, seas, and on land. The manufacturing processes of plastic and its improper disposal releases carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gas emissions into the atmosphere. These emissions contribute to climate change. Additionally, tiny shards of plastic referred to as microplactics can enter in fish, birds, livestock, and the human body and accumulate in organs to cause health problems. Hence, innovations that eliminate the use of plastic should be encouraged.
Fostering a sustainable bioeconomy is one way to promote green innovations that help to find alternatives for plastic. One such alternative is the possibility of using bioplastics derived from bioresources such as plants, making them biodegradable or compostable to protect the environment. Studies show that bioplastics that are 100% bio-based are currently produced globally at a scale of 2 million tonnes per year and are considered a part of future circular economies to help achieve some of the United Nations’ (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as by diverting from fossil resources, introducing new recycling or degradation pathways, and using less toxic reagents and solvents in production processes.
BioInnovate Africa is experimenting the possible use of cassava for bioplastics, through one of the projects it is supporting in Uganda, Tanzania, and Rwanda. Cassava is a highly resilient crop that is widely cultivated in the East Africa region. It is mainly grown for food and nutrition security and excess roots are sold to generate income for the farm households. The project will convert cassava biowaste into eco-friendly packaging materials. If it works, this eco-friendly packaging material will provide alternatives to synthetic plastics. Such alternative biodegradable plastic could find uses in pest control during grain storage, and contribute to food security, and jobs in an eco-friendly manner.