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Carbon-Offsetting Cassava-based Biodegradable Bioplastic in Solving Plastic Waste Pollution

Former BCGer Tommy Tjiptadjaja is now the cofounder and CEO of Greenhope. He sat down with BCG to discuss biodegradable plastic technology, and how to move towards a sustainable future.

Tell us more about how Greenhope came to be, and the mission-driven purpose behind it.

I’ve always believed that business exists to solve problems: the bigger the problem is, the bigger the value creation. If we want to have a true shot at a sustainable future, businesses need to bring tangible positive impact, or at least not negative, to the various stakeholders and the planet. Most of today’s businesses, with their strictly narrow focus on the bottom line, are contributing negatively to the already challenging state of the world. What brought us here definitely will not get us there. So when I discussed with my longtime friend who is a scientist with a 40-year family business background in conventional plastic as well as RnD Engineer in a prominent US company (he’s the smarter one!), we launched Greenhope as the culmination of that philosophy: a sustainable material technologies social enterprise that is mission-driven, net positive to the people’s prosperity and the environment, scalable, and profitable. Our primary mission is to help convert the world’s production and consumption to be sustainable in line with UN SDG 12 (United Nations Sustainable Development Goal), starting with our expertise in material technologies to fight plastic waste pollution. By now, we know plastic waste pollution is a serious existential problem: more than 10 million tons/year of plastics leak into nature, with the resulting microplastics contaminating our water and food systems, entering our stomachs and blood streams, and, according to most recent research, lodging into the deepest chambers of our lungs. This problem will only get worse until it is truly solved.

We've all heard about the three Rs: reduce, reuse, recycle. But can you tell us more about the fourth R you believe in at Greenhope and how it ties into the ultimate vision for the firm?

I learn so far that there is no single country in the world that has completely solved the plastic waste pollution problem with only the 3Rs, mostly because of the lack of economic viability of most plastic waste. Even countries with the most developed waste management and circular economy practices are still exporting substantial chunks of their uneconomical plastic waste (contaminating other countries) as well as incinerating them (contributing to both their carbon footprint and global warming). While in general we should reduce unnecessary plastic usage, reuse our personal shopping bags and water tumblers, and recycle our PET bottles and many broken durable plastic items, we still face challenges for uneconomical plastic waste: items that are too small, scattered/distributed, contaminated, multi-layers of plastic types, etc., such as our garbage-filled trash bags, plastic straws, utensils, and a myriad of flexible films packaging for food and nonfood that we distribute around the world. This substantial number of plastic wastes need to be upgraded with better-behaving, biodegradable materials at their end of life. This is the missing fourth R: return to earth. Greenhope has a portfolio of proprietary return to earth technologies serving different segments depending on affordability, local socio-cultural context, end-of-life design, geography, weather, and raw material availability.

From our more than ten years of research and seven years of patents and international testing standards and certifications (in US, Singapore, and Indonesia) we first launched Ecoplas and Naturloop, our home and commercial compostable bioplastics based on ASEAN’s locally sourced materials such as tapioca/cassava and sago. These bioplastics biodegrade within one to six months at their end of life, as well as produce at least 30% less carbon compared with their conventional counterpart, and are useful as a carbon offset initiative. We also source the starch from Indonesian farmer co-ops with Fair for Life certification, creating a positive impact link between sustainable consumption and prospering Indonesian farmers. Our other technology, Oxium, is made of mineral salts to be blended with conventional plastic, upon which, at the item’s end of life when catalyzed by sun/heat/moisture, will speed up its biodegradation fully and safely into Biomass, carbon dioxide, and water. We manufacture the raw material technologies and then sell and send them to more than 150 finished-product factories in Indonesia and around the world, producing various applications such as sustainable shopping bags, garbage bags, seedling bags, doggie waste bags, food and non-food packaging, utensils and straws, food trays, fashion wrappers, and many others. Going forward, being an innovation company that we are, we have a few more relevant applicable technologies in the pipeline.

Plastic use is the default packaging option and the norm for many consumer goods producers. What are the key challenges you have faced in challenging the status quo? How have you confronted and learned from them?

To successfully create adoption at scale, we need to fine-tune each application between target price, functional properties, and environmental effectiveness. We also need to communicate openly informing all the trade-offs with the brands/consumer goods producers. Joint development is ideal, as we are experts in material innovation, but they know their packaging and market segments. At the end of the day, the key thing is to be humble, to realize that each one of us is too small to affect meaningful change against the scale of these systemic problems, and each of us only carries a piece of the puzzle that needs to be assembled into a viable solution that will move the needle. We cannot act and feel morally and technically superior alone—that those other solutions are inferior to greenwashing. That lends to much of today’s confusion. Like any medicine, each solution has strengths, limitations, and “side effects.” The key is to know where to apply it contextually, against which plastic waste, within what local infrastructure complexity and the necessary behavior changes, and how to mitigate the side effects of each solution. “Less ego, more eco,” I always say.

Given how critical a topic Sustainability & Climate is across industry and function alike, any advice to share with someone looking to follow a similar path as you did? What do you wish you knew as you were about to embark on this journey?

This space will only get bigger and more important because the problems will only grow bigger, faster, until they are truly solved—and currently the experts are very few. My advice is to study the issue well, weave your personal “why” into it so you develop authentic passion and energy (it’s definitely not a sprint!). You will also need partners with various skillsets and institutional relationships. Because to truly affect change, it is not enough to only innovate technically (deploying better technologies), but also innovate on the critical processes (in our case, improving the waste management system) as well as on social aspects (working with governments, NGOs, educational institutions to affect behavior change and regulatory advocacy; for people to separate their waste, stop littering, etc.). It is complex, but definitely never boring, just like our BCG days!

What are your priorities and goals for Greenhope over the next five years? What are you most excited about for Greenhope's future?

For the sake of our existential health and the planet, I really hope the world is producing and consuming in a different way, with better habits, using better materials and processes. And we envision Greenhope to be an integral part of that story. To be part of a company story experiencing our own growth, while at the same time helping to drive society’s transformation for the better in a significant way, would be a super-rewarding experience! Greenhope’s future and prosperity should be directly linked with people’s and the planet’s flourishing.

How did your experiences at BCG help shape your path? Are there any key experiences or lessons learned that continue to influence you in your current role, especially in times of crisis?

My BCG training and experience are indispensable to our work at Greenhope. The data-driven, systematic, disciplined approach in understanding the complex plastic waste pollution issue and system and turning it into accurate actionable insights is critical. Otherwise, any intervention we make could create many unintended consequences in other parts of the system, negating the positive impact (which happens quite often in this space). The ability to simplify those insights into succinct, powerful, coherent, and logical communication, BCG-style, is super critical to rally different parties and build effective collaboration. And finally, I hope to see and work more with BCG networks to realize a shared, sustainable future for our society and planet. We don’t have much time.