Local entrepreneur believes Thai people will change consumption behaviour if they have affordable choices.
Thailand's green market remains relatively stagnant and consumers still need to be more environmentally educated, but one manufacturer of packaging materials made from bagasse has high hopes for his eco-friendly business.
Bagasse is the dry pulpy residue left after juice is extracted from sugarcane.
"The trend toward a green society is growing worldwide, and people in areas as diverse as the US, Europe, Australia, Malaysia and Vietnam are becoming increasingly concerned about the environment and their health thanks in part to greater awareness of the cancer-causing substances found in foam and plastics," said Aree Lekuthai, the assistant manager of Biodegradable Packaging for Environment Co Ltd (BPE).
"We Thais need to change our consumption behaviour, as we don't place much importance on issues that seem far away."
With the global price of petroleum rising sharply, concern is growing about the depletion of non-renewable resources, said Mr Aree.
Worldwide interest in sustainability, responsible packaging and effective waste management has created a growing interest in developing crop-based packaging materials.
Such materials are biodegradable and/or compostable, offering an alternative to traditional synthetic materials and consequently reducing the environmental impact.
Until recently, these packaging materials were considered a novelty in the market, with traditional synthetic plastics accounting for the vast majority of sales.
However, BPE, founded five years ago in partnership with the National Innovation Agency, is now ready to expand.
The company's factory in Chai Nat province receives its bagasse from a Nakhon Sawan sugar mill.
BPE is targeting an even split between domestic and export sales within two years. At present, 80% of its products are exported to the US, France, England, Germany and Australia.
Plans are afoot to double production from the current level of 600,000 to 800,000 pieces per day, said Mr Aree.
He said expansion would take place in two phases costing 600-700 million baht, with 300-400 million budgeted for the first phase.
Changes will include automatic machinery to replace labour, which will help to reduce costs.
"Our strategy will involve educating the public through both below- and above-the-line publicity. We're also thinking of rebranding, as the 'bio-' prefix has become just another common name," said Mr Aree.
BPE will meet with modern trade outlets about increasing product variety and holding promotions.
Even though bagasse packaging is two or three times more expensive than foam, it is about the same price as plastic, is microwaveable and biodegrades completely within 45 days, said Mr Aree.
He said a package of 10 cups sells for 29 baht. Some customers are concerned about the price, but many are not such as the Bio-Ham outlet in Bangkok's Yaowarat area, which uses BPE's bagasse packaging for its food.
"Most of our customers say it looks pretty, and they buy it for parties, trips or for use in their own businesses such as spas or health stores. Tourist destinations are also keen customers," said Mr Aree.
He said the products were now available at 7-Eleven, Isetan, Big C, Tesco Lotus, Makro, Tops, Carrefour, Foodland and Villa Market.
They have been on the shelves for five years now, but it takes a long time for people to realise what the products are actually made of, said Mr Aree.
He said the trend in this business is definitely positive, and BPE is considering a new line of special packaging for food producers exporting to Europe.
The agribusiness conglomerate Charoen Pokphand Group is now in talks with BPE about switching to compostable packaging, said Mr Aree.
"The most important factor in driving demand [for green products] is consumer education in terms of their health and the environment," he said.
"And it is essential for Thailand to start collecting waste disposal fees from manufacturers. In Europe, some countries even ban imports of goods packed in foam."
By Nanchanok Wongsamuth
04 April 2011