By Candice D McLeod
Each week leading up to the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) finals on June 5th, where the runner-up will be decided via live online public vote, we will feature two articles on an SBIO semi-finalists. Meet semi-finalist Ecopia.
Using the starch from tapioca, social enterprise Ecopia produces a fully degradable, recyclable, and non-GMO bio-plastic, referred to as ECOPLAS®, while also seeking to drive social value within the communities that create its product.
Ecopia markets ECOPLAS as an environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional plastic and paper products, and it is currently used for blown film and injection molding applications, such as reusable bags, packaging solutions, transport bags, clothing hangers, and fixtures.
“ECOPLAS is a resin, a new polymer made from tapioca starch at a molecular level, and is a material that is an alternative to regular plastics. When ECOPLAS material is exposed to common microbes, they will attach to the material and consume it over time,” says Paul Norell, COO of Ecopia Worldwide.
This means that if tossed on the side of the street, or tangled in the natural environment – though this is not where Ecopia hopes its ECOPLAS-based products will end up – products made from ECOPLAS will decompose in a fraction of the time of traditional plastic products.
According to the company, “ECOPLAS® was specifically designed to biodegrade in natural settings because the unfortunate reality is that most of the discarded plastics around the world are not trashed or recycled. Because tapioca is a food source, the tiny microbes found in soil and seawater consume the ECOPLAS® products until it disappears. ECOPLAS® is also unique in that it does not require light or air to degrade.”
Ecopia’s research and development team spent approximately ten years developing ECOPLAS’s tapioca-based technology to ensure that the process is as sustainable as possible, from cradle to grave. As a result, Ecopia implements sustainable agricultural processes, translating into a product that is non-GMO, with a low carbon footprint, and Fair for Life-certified to ensure that human rights are guaranteed along their supply chain.
“We are excited by how low our carbon footprint is compared to competitive technologies and methods. From the measuring of raw inputs such as water and energy, sun drying of starch and simple farming methodologies, we can determine that ECOPLAS offers a much lower carbon footprint than others,” says Norell.
The company chose tapioca as the base for their bio-plastic resin, because tapioca is a renewable resource as it can be grown “up to three times a year,” but more importantly, tapioca is abundantly grown in some of the world’s poorest countries. The company’s long-term mission is to “achieve significant life-improvements among the very poor in seven target countries/regions: Indonesia, South India, China, Mozambique, Nigeria, Honduras, and Brazil.”
Norell says, “Developing countries in the tropics are rich in natural resources, yet relatively poor economically. We wanted to find a way to take a low value crop that is grown only in the tropics and add value to it, creating long term effects and benefit to small stakeholder farms and their communities.”
Since perfecting the technology, Ecopia has begun producing and selling both the resin to factories, as well as finished goods to retailers through its subsidiary, Tirta Marta.
Norell says, “Customers have found our material an excellent alternative to regular plastic and align very well with their own sustainability goals.”
In fact, its early client list includes well-known retailers such as Mall of America, Bloomberg, Nickelodeon Universe, footwear retailer Sanuk, as well as sportswear companies Billabong and Hurley.
“Our market is brand owners and retailers who have sustainability goals that align with our story and vision of supporting the small developing country farms as well as using an environmentally superior material for the planet.”
In addition to being a Sustainable Brands Innovation Open (SBIO) semi-finalist for 2013, Ecopia has also won the Schwab Foundation Social Entrepreneur of the Year Award, the Ernst and Young Entrepreneur of the Year and Innovation Award, and has been selected as a member of the Endeavor High Impact Entrepreneur group.
Visit Ecopia to learn more about its environmentally-friendly alternative to traditional plastic, and the company's dedication to creating social value for those living in the poorest regions of the world.
Candice D. McLeod is the Sustainable Brands Innovation Open Co-Coordinator. She received a Master’s degree in Environmental Studies, concentrating in Energy Management & Policy, as well as a bachelor’s degree in Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. Connect with her on Twitter @candicedmcleod.