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Can you remember every plastic-encased takeaway meal you ever purchased and threw away? Conventional packaging plastics such as polystyrene are oil-based, toxic and non-biodegradable, consuming valuable non-renewable resources during production and taking upwards of 50 years to break down. All those plastic cartons we all have tossed out after a fast food meal over the years have either been burned, releasing toxins into the air, or are still sitting in landfills where they will remain for years to come.

From convenience foods to plastic wrapped magazines; plastic bag-swamped grocery shops to shiny new phones and laptops swimming in boxes inside boxes inside boxes, it’s fair to say that our cradle-to-grave addiction to packaging is getting out of hand. And yet, there is no denying our need for sensible packaging solutions to ensure the quality, health and safety of goods, to delay spoilage of perishables, and to brand and market our products effectively.

One eco-entrepreneur from Blenheim has a vision to solve this problem, developing and commercialising an environmentally conscious packaging solution using waste starch from the potato processing industry. It all began in the early 1990s, when aviation engineer Richard Williams attended his staff barbecue and was shocked by the mass of plastic plates and cutlery that were used and trashed. In 2000, after years of trial-and-error machinery design and construction, Potatopak began manufacturing plates, trays and bowls. Now Potatopak sells from its online store and lines participating New World supermarket shelves and smaller eco-stores with a range of potato starch plates, bowls, trays, takeaway punnets and packaging filler; as well as biodegradable cups, napkins, wooden cutlery and bags.

On their journey from farm to dinner plate, potatoes are blasted with washed, scrubbed
then, at 120 kph, pushed through a tube fitted with knives to cut wedges, crisps or chips. The water, full of starch from the cut surfaces, is processed through a starch extractor. The result is clean filtered water to be reused by the potato processor, and dried potato starch to be used in the making of Potatopak products. Dried starch is processed in a high-speed pressure thermoforming machine that inserts the powdered starch onto moulds. The starch is then pressurised and ‘cooked’ into a rigid, durable shape. Potatopak products are biodegradable, non-toxic and even edible.

A cradle-to-cradle poster child, every step of Potatopaks product lifecycle is pro-environment:

  • By recycling the starch water, Potatopak reduces factory waste and prevents its disposal down drains or for use as pasture irrigation, a practice known to suffocate soil, kill pasture and harm animals that feed off it. Raw starch can also form sediment on river beds that doesn’t break down.
  • During manufacture, Potatopak products produce no noxious fumes to the atmosphere, no toxic liquid waste and only a small amount of solid waste. A local pig farmer uses this solid waste to feed his pigs and any leftovers biodegrade in less than four weeks. Check out the video below to see pigs eating Potatopak plates!
  • After use, Potatopak products are 100% biodegradable and break down in a compost heap or worm farm within four weeks with no harmful chemicals leaching into the soil. Due to lower oxygen and lower moisture, Potatopak products will take longer to decompose in compressed landfill environments. Consumers are therefore encouraged to dispose of them in compost or worm farms.
  • Not only are Potatopak products made from waste, they alleviate waste by providing a viable alternative to petrochemical plastics and reducing levels of waste that reach landfill.

Potatopak products can be used to store or serve most foods. However, the products are currently not capable of holding raw meats or hot liquids, such as coffees and soups as these substances cause the starch to break down quickly.

Potatopak is undertaking research with scientists at Plant & Food Research to develop a food-safe, non-toxic and 100% biodegradable protective coating that will prevent breakdown of the starch. Significant progress has been made with the final hurdle being the commercial viability of the protective coating. If successful, Potatopaks technology has the potential to cause major upsets to industries such as takeaway coffee cups.

Furthermore, Potatopak is always exploring new uses for their products. Recent innovations include a possum bait station made out of potato starch, heat pump filters for HRV Home Reticulation and even wing mirrors for the world’s first biodegradable racing car – a Formula 3 vehicle made entirely from recycled or renewable materials.

The small Kiwi company is a long way off putting garbage dumps out of business. But with ongoing R&D and more technological breakthroughs on the horizon, the product range has potential to become a competitive force in the takeaway packaging space.

Potatopak is a genuine eco-pioneer. Turning waste into a resource, reducing demand for petroleum-based packaging and alleviating pressure on landfills, the company represents a future of possibilities for today’s businesses. In the coming decades, we look forward to seeing more imaginative businesses like Potatopak harnessing the opportunities presented by the green movement.

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