Conscious living

2008-08-07 00:00

DOVEHOUSE Organic Farm is setting the pace in sustainable living in KwaZulu-Natal by becoming the first distributors in the province of packaging that can safely be thrown into your compost bin instead of clogging up the country’s burgeoning landfills.

Supplied by Green Home (Pty) Ltd in Cape Town, the biodegradable packaging range includes disposable cups, plates, bowls, eating utensils, transparent film bags and various takeaway-type boxes.

Made from natural and renewable resources, they can biodegrade within a few weeks without leaving any toxic residue. As such, they provide a viable, environment-friendly and, in many cases, superior alternative to polystyrene and other plastic products.

Polystyrene is becoming the target of bans throughout the world because of concerns around its disposal and its effect on marine life and other animals.

“We’re always on the lookout for sustainable solutions to everyday living,” said Paul Duncan who runs the Karkloof-based Dovehouse Organic Farm and shop with his wife, Shereen. “We were very excited when we found out about Green Home’s products,” he said. “It’s amazing stuff, really.”

Green Home supplies two main categories of biodegradable tableware: bioplastic, which is derived from hemp oil, soy bean oil and corn starch (rather than petroleum, which is used for conventional plastics); and bagasse, which is a byproduct of sugar extraction.

What all biodegradable types have in common, according to Green Home, is their ability to withstand heat and steam better than their conventional counterparts and to keep baking products fresher for longer. And starch-based film packaging, for example, provides optimal humidity for fruit and vegetables.

Since he received his first consignment a few weeks ago, Duncan has been putting the products to the test. So far, so good. “There’s been no liquid seepage after three days, so all products are reusable. And because it’s more tolerant to hot oil and water, it’s also more healthy for humans.” He said the products are also microwave-safe and fridge and freezer-friendly.

Duncan said that all products are extremely stable at normal temperature and humidity ranges, requiring beneficial bacteria, usually found in compost, to start to biodegrade.

“So it’s not going to start biodegrading on your shelf,” said Duncan. “And [animals] can eat it. It’s better for them than polystyrene, being full of fibre and minerals.

“If you burn this, it smells like wood smoke,” he said, handing me one of the “bioplastic” knives that could easily be mistaken for ordinary plastic. But once incinerated, said Duncan, the ash from the utensil can be used as a fertiliser.

Green Home was launched in October last year to a “phenomenal” response. The biodegradable products are produced in the United States, Thailand and China.

According to Green Home’s Catherine Morris, clients include Woolworths, Table Mountain Cable Way Company, Moyo, the Cape Town International Convention Centre and the Pick ’n Pay Oyster Festival.

Morris said the company, which currently has branches in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Knysna, is optimistic about the prospects for the product in KwaZulu-Natal.

Duncan has had successful meetings with local packaging companies and is keen to see the organisers of big events like the Royal Show adopt the packaging, as well as school tuckshops and facilities such as the International Convention Centre.

Duncan said people have been generally receptive, although the cost of the biodegradable packaging is still considerably higher than its conventional counterparts.

But, as Duncan knows, getting people to change their lifestyles and business practices is not always easy. In his favour, however, is a worldwide shift towards more environment-conscious living.

“It’s all about education,” he said. “When we started this organic farm eight years ago, the level of understanding about organic products was low. Sometimes we barely made enough to cover the stall fee at the markets we sold at. Now, awareness has grown, but quick and easy and cheap still appeals to people.”

Ultimately, for Dovehouse, the slog is worth it. “Shereen and I have three small children. We want to make a difference for them, you know, ensure they have a future.”

• In Pietermaritzburg, the full range of Green Home products is available at Foodpak and there is a limited range at Densons. You can buy directly from Dovehouse.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH POLYSTYRENE?

• It belongs to a class of plastics known as thermoplastics, which are derived from petroleum (non-renewable) and natural gas by-products. Anything linked to the petroleum industry these days is subject to questions around sustainability.

• It’s difficult to recycle. Because it takes up large volumes of space, transporting the waste is often not economically viable. Also, contamination from food residue makes it impossible to recycle without first going to the trouble of cleaning it.

• It is not biodegradable and will remain for up to centuries in landfills — as will most waste products. According to information on the website of the Plastics Federation of South Africa, it is a “common misconception” that materials biodegrade in a meaningful timeframe in landfills. In reality, it says, landfills are “vast mummifiers of waste”, preventing leakage of harmful liquid and gaseous by-products of the degradation process.

• It clogs waterways and damages wildlife that eat it. According to the website of the Californian city San Clemente, which has banned the use of singleuse polystyrene products in city facilities and at city-sponsored events, it is a “visible form of pollution” and “marine and land wildlife often perish as a result of ingesting polystyrene products mistaken as food”.

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