Google Kevin Kumala and you will find his viral video. He’s drinking a glass of lukewarm water. Nothing so unusual about that perhaps - except that the water he’s chugging down contains dissolved biodegradable plastics!
“I know people will call me crazy,” he smiles. “But it draws their attention by doing this act, right? The purpose of making this video was to show people that my biodegradable bag – an alternative to all those discarded plastic bags that are polluting the environment everywhere - is fully made from plant-based resources.
“The main material of my invention is cassava starch, and it’s 100 percent safe. It’s passed oral toxicity tests. It’s going to be a revolutionary product because it’s not going to hurt the environment, especially marine animals. We know that a lot of plastic products end up in oceans, rivers and streams. But when animals eat our bioplastics, they’re not going to get hurt.”
The holder of biology and business degrees from University of Southern California, Kumala is a 32-year-old social entrepreneur. He is the co-founder and Chief Green Officer of Avani, an eco-technology company he established in 2014. The company’s products include compostable plastic alternatives and sustainable packaging solutions like takeaway cups and boxes, wooden cutlery, straws, shopping bags and more. All of Avani’s products are plant-based and compostable.
“As of 2016, we have replaced 6,000 tons of plastics with biodegradables in Indonesia,” says Kumala. “It’s very satisfying to know that I have contributed to this beautiful world that God has created. But there’s still a long way to go.”
How did Kumala get the idea for biodegradable plastics? “After living in the United States most of my whole life, I came back to Indonesia for a visit in 2009,” he recalls. “Growing, up I’d been a surfer and also a diver. When I came back to Indonesia, I went to Bali and I saw a huge change in the environment. I had visited the Nusa Lembongan, Nusa Penida and Tulamben areas for my first surfing and diving experiences when I was 11 years old. Back then the view of the ocean was breathtaking and the visibility was 40 metres. I saw all these beautiful marine creatures, such as manta rays.
“But it was a different experience coming back here. The visibility was down to about 10 metres and the underwater view was not so clear as before. Not only that, there was so much plastic waste - not only in the water but also on the beach. You’re no longer walking on sand, you’re walking on a pile of plastic trash. It was really bothering and frustrating. Going to Bali was supposedly my vacation, but the experience was ruined by the reality of what has happened to the island.
“One day, I went surfing with my friend and business co-founder Daniel Rosenqvist. After we got back onshore, we were having a few drinks and chatting. He’s from Sweden, and said that he had never seen so many motorcyclists in his life. It was raining that day and all the motorcyclists we saw going by were wearing plastic raincoats. We thought, all these huge raincoats - where do they end up?
“Daniel had this business idea to make raincoats, since there are a lot of motorcyclists in Bali. But then I said, why don’t we make a raincoat that is biodegradable since I have knowledge of it from my biology studies? He didn’t know what biodegradable products were at the time, so I explained to him that that we could use natural compounds and raw materials to make raincoats. After being thrown away, they would be absorbed by the soil naturally. They would not hurt the world like plastics, which can pollute the environment for many years.
“We had our business plan ready in 2010. We bought raw materials from Europe and produced our biodegradable raincoat in Hong Kong. We imported them to Bali for launch in 2011. Thank God, the product was a success, becoming a hit in Bali.
“But I don’t want to stop there. I retro-engineered the material that we bought from Europe so that we could produce it in Indonesia. It took me a lot of time in the laboratory to replicate it. After much research, I found the best 100 percent natural material for our biodegradable products. We use cassava starch because Indonesia grows a lot of this crop. In fact, there’s a surplus of production and so it’s cheap. I need to underline that we’re using only industrial-grade cassava starch and not taking people’s food supplies. The cassava we use is a complement for cattle feed. That’s the beauty of bioplastics. They turn waste materials into something that’s of value. In 2013, we launched our next product, which is the biodegradable plastic bag made solely from natural resources.
“We’re accepting big orders from the hospitality industry - hotels, restaurants and cafés. If you’re running a good business, you should really pay attention to what your customers want. They told me that even though they were already using our eco-friendly bioplastic bags, they still used styrofoam food containers and cups. They asked me if I could
make more ranges of eco-friendly products. So I went back into the laboratory to increase the variety of our eco-friendly products. Now our products include biodegradable takeaway boxes, plates, bowls, coffee cups and more. All of the materials that we are using are renewable resources like sugar cane fibre and corn starch. When these products are discarded, within 180 days they are becoming compost. Our products are not only biodegradable, but also useful for the soil’s fertility.”
How has his invention changed Kumala’s own lifestyle? “Of course, I’m very particular when it comes to plastics consumption,” he smiles. “In general, people living in cities use about 15 kg of plastics each month. But I have been able to cut down my consumption to 3 kg per month. I log my plastics consumption every day, just like calorie counting. I have also become the big anti-plastics evangelist when it comes to the people around me. I’m just preaching about the danger of using plastics, the risks to our health and to the planet generally.”
Kumala believes that in order to save the planet, we have to replace every single disposable product with an eco-friendly alternative. “I believe that the concept of ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ is outdated thinking because of the technology that we have now. Replace is the only hope to combat this global epidemic of plastics pollution. I think plastics is our biggest environmental problem, especially in the oceans. It’s a ticking time bomb, and we need to find a faster solution for it before it’s too late.”
Does Kumala have a message for those who want to help make the world a bit greener in their personal lives? “It doesn’t require you to do a massive amount of work at all,” he replies. “It’s about setting an example. You can start by using a reusable bag for shopping instead of accepting plastic bags. Tell people the story why you’re not using plastic. If every person who does this then tells his or her friends about it, this will definitely help to reduce the amount of pollution in Indonesia. So, you can start by doing something small - but make sure your friends know why you’re doing it.”
The feature has been published in Prestige April 2017, The Green Issue. Click here to purchase.