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Plastic straws take up to 200 years to decompose. (Photo: Karolciesluk)

Jamaican start-up shows potential of plastics substitutes

Plastic straws take up to 200 years to decompose. (Photo: Karolciesluk)

Editor’s note: The following is an article taken from the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development website.

BAMBUSA has already replaced over five million plastic straws with a sustainable bamboo version and is now turning the island’s discarded coconut shells into sustainable kitchenware.

The seed that inspired a Jamaican company producing sustainable alternatives to everyday plastic products was planted during one of Tricia Williamson’s last conversations with her grandfather.

“What did you use before plastic straws, Dada?” she asked, as they walked through the family farm.

“Bamboo,” he replied with a smile, as the sun set over the island’s lush green hills.

That was in November 2017. One year later, BAMBUSA, named after the island’s main variety of bamboo, was registered as a business and an international trademark.

Sipping sustainably

Within one year, the company, started with Williamson’s own investment, sold over 15,000 of its flagship laser-engraved bamboo straws — replacing about five million plastic straws that would have likely littered Jamaica’s streets and pristine beaches.

BAMBUSA laser-engraved bamboo straws (Photo courtesy of BAMBUSA)

“I decided to first focus on straws because they’re everywhere – on every occasion,” Ms. Williamson says. “I wanted people to be able to ‘sip sustainably’ at birthdays, weddings, anniversaries, office farewells – whenever there’s a reason to celebrate.”

According to the company’s research, each BAMBUSA straw replaces on average 360 plastic straws.

“Bamboo is an ideal plastic substitute,” says David Vivas Eugui, an UNCTAD legal officer working on environmental issues. “It grows quickly, absorbs large amounts of CO2 (carbon dioxide) and biodegrades in just a couple of years.

Plastic straws, on the other hand, take up to 200 years to decompose.

Eight million tons of plastic

More than eight million tons of plastic flood our ocean each year, disrupting fragile marine ecosystems and harming wildlife, such as turtles and other mammals.

Jamaican households generate about 800,000 tons of residential waste annually, 15% of which is made from plastic, according to estimates by the United Nations Environment Programme.

BAMBUSA’s success in Jamaica was highlighted during a recent meeting on promoting plastics substitutes and alternatives in the Caribbean, organized by UNCTAD and The Latin American and Caribbean Economic System (SELA in Spanish), an intergovernmental regional organization.

“Without the government ban, our bamboo straws wouldn’t have been such an immediate success”

— Tricia Williamson, founder, BAMBUSA

The meeting built on an UNCTAD analysis submitted in June 2020 to the World Trade Organization’s committee on trade and environment, which highlighted how trade and industrial policy could help scale up the production of plastics substitutes including natural products, fibres and agricultural waste.

A helping hand

About 80 per cent of BAMBUSA’s products are sold on the island with the remaining bought by Jamaicans living in the United States and Canada.

“The example of BAMBUSA is a concrete example of how local businesses can offer viable solutions to the global plastic emergency,” Vivas Eugui says.

“But they need help from their governments and export agencies to scale up production and sales.”

For Williamson, this took the form of the process to ban single-use plastics that the Jamaican Government started on 1 January 2019. The final phase, which applies to disposable drinking straws, has begun this year.

“I knew many Jamaicans were worried about plastics and were willing to buy sustainable alternatives,” she said. “But plastic products are so convenient.”

“Without the government ban, our bamboo straws wouldn’t have been such an immediate success,” she adds.

Eugui agrees: “Such bans create important incentives for the emergence of sunrise plastic substitutes industries.”

The key issue, he says, is price. Plastic is cheap, and alternative products will struggle to compete.

“Government bans or other regulations are necessary in this case to create the right market opportunities,” Vivas Eugui says.

But, he adds, it’s not enough to ban plastics. “Local businesses need to be prepared to meet the new demand, which is not always the case.”

Before the ban, Williamson, who studied biochemistry and worked as a digital marketer, had spent two years researching the potential market and establishing the necessary relationships with local and international bamboo suppliers to ensure a high-quality product.

This proved decisive in convincing her first big clients – government ministries, private companies, banks and the national energy company – which expected a reliable supply of high-quality products.

Beyond straws

Following the initial success of the bamboo straw, Williamson continued her quest to replace plastic products with sustainable alternatives.

BAMBUSA’s business plan always went beyond straws, she says. But product diversification became critical when COVID-19 devastated the local and regional tourism sectors and cancelled corporate travel and events throughout the Caribbean.

“Sales of our bamboo straws, which are travel essentials and great gifts for corporate events, went from the peak of the Blue Mountains to the bottom of the sea,” she says, referring to Jamaica’s longest mountain range located in the east of the Island and rising 2,256 metres above the sea.

Before the pandemic, the laser-engraved bamboo straws accounted for 98 per cent of BAMBUSA’s sales. By the end of 2020, that share had dropped to five per cent.

“Luckily, we had started the diversification process before the crisis hit and were able to quickly move ahead,” Ms. Williamson says, adding that the company now produces over 30 products, all made on the island.

Coconut bowls

Coconut shells
Dried coconut shells (Photo courtesy of BAMBUSA)

The newest additions to BAMBUSA’s natural products are bowls and candles made from discarded coconut shells.

After extracting the coconut oil, for which global demand has skyrocketed, most of the island’s farmers discard the left-over shells or burn them as fuel, releasing harmful carbon dioxide and methane gas in the process.

Williamson’s research showed that millions of coconut shells were going to waste on the island.

“I was visiting a local farm and couldn’t believe my eyes,” she says. “There were mountains of shells just sitting there, ready to be given a new life.”

She hopes to make coconut bowls a staple in Jamaican households again, despite her grandma’s hesitations.

“My 82-year-old grandma remembers that hard time early in her life of making her own coconut bowls and understandably is not enthusiastic about going back to that,” Williamson says.

“Nevertheless, my grandmother loves our coconut bowls and knows the convenience of plastic isn’t worth the environmental price.”

“And she’s happy the younger generations are really embracing the idea or returning to sustainable products rooted in our own culture,” she adds.

Wood leftover from construction projects or from making furniture on the island is also providing great material for some of the company’s collections, including photoboards and gift boxes, and helping BAMBUSA ensure its entire value chain remains sustainable.

Looking out over the Caribbean Sea, Williamson sees a bright, sustainable future, inspired by local materials whose value was too quickly forgotten in the wake of cheap plastic.