‘I’m a plant’ eco-bags are lightweight and as strong as plastic bags. -Pic courtesy of The Phnom Penh Post

WHEN he first arrived in 2014, Japanese-American entrepreneur Kai Kuramoto heard many tourists say Cambodia was a beautiful country, except for the rubbish littering the streets.

Kuramoto realised that plastic bags were the main source of litter and was determined to find a sustainable solution to the problem.

He and his team eventually founded Cleanbodia – an idea of using the biodegradable bag "I’m a plant".

“After researching the types of biodegradable bags we could produce, we decided that a starch-based product was necessary as opposed to a bag with a chemical additive.

"As cassava is grown throughout Southeast Asia, it made sense to use cassava starch due to its accessibility and cost,” said Kuramoto.

Kuramoto explained that he did not know that the starch-based cassava works well because bioplastic can be made from a variety of plants.

In a report by the Phnom Penh Post, Kuramoto said the "I’m a plant" eco-bags are lightweight and as strong as plastic bags.

“Cleanbodia started in 2015 as a small project to see if biodegradable bags could be introduced into the Cambodian market. We researched, designed, marketed, and distributed biodegradable bags all over Cambodia as well as internationally,” said Kuramoto.

Before Kuramoto came to Cambodia, he was a national event manager, who managed conferences and conventions around the US. He had not thought of running a business at that time.

But when he first came to Cambodia, Kuramoto started to think about the environment and starting his own business.

“Our main goal is not to replace plastic bags but to drastically reduce our dependence on products that harm our environment. Biodegradable bags are better for our ecosystem because the raw material can be regrown, unlike oil or natural gas.

"They also degrade in about six years which is at least 200 years quicker than a regular plastic bag,” said Kuramoto, adding that the "I’m a plant" message written on his biodegradable bags would make people think of where the bags came from.

“Our biodegradable bags are as strong as regular plastic but they don’t have the chemical feel and smell that plastic often has. They can hold hot or cold liquids, but if stored in wet conditions for a long period, they will start to degrade,” said Kuramoto.

Due to the complicated process of producing degradable bags which requires expensive machinery, Kuramoto and his team of engineers went through a lot of trial and error. He is now operating a factory located in Southeast Asia.

“Currently, the bags are not produced in Cambodia but are made in Southeast Asia. We have studied the possibility of building a factory in the Kingdom and are still assessing the best way to do that with the right partners,” he said.

Kuramoto told the Phnom Penh Post: “Production here would allow for cheaper biodegradable bags and there is certainly enough cassava grown to supply the production of the bags.

"It would also be a great export for Cambodia as we have received inquiries from all over the world wanting our biodegradable bags. I think this would be something Cambodians could be proud of.

“Everyone prefers a cheaper product. But, traditional plastic bags aren’t necessarily cheaper than a biodegradable bag. The cost of using and disposing of plastics will be incredibly high when we need to remove them from our environment and try to repair the damage caused to our ecosystem,” Kuramoto explained.

Kuramoto is currently focussed on reducing plastic bag use as they make up almost 20 per cent of waste in the Kingdom.

Cleanbodia has two products: biodegradable and compostable bags. Bio-bag contains plastic and lasts long for six years while the compostable one contains no plastic that lasts under two years.

Kuramoto is working with a handful of organisations such as GoGreen Cambodia and Plastic Free Southeast Asia to help promote solutions to plastic pollution and hundreds of organisations.

Although many people see that bio-bags are eco-friendly, more awareness needs to be raised to shift from traditional plastic to a better choice.

“A big challenge here is that many people I talk to know that plastic is bad but don’t change their behaviour. This has to do with the lack of alternatives which is where I think the government can make a big impact and show the world that Cambodia can be a model country for its green initiatives,” stressed Kuramoto.

“The current sub-decree was a great first step to reducing plastic pollution and I am excited to see what the Ministry of Environment does in the future.”

Kuramoto said that he will continue to research the market and look for opportunities to replace traditional plastic bags.

“We will also assess potential partners in building a production facility,” he added.