About 5years ago, young scientists at NaCRRI’s Biochemistry Lab invented a biodegradable plastic packaging bag from cassava peels. Excited to rock the market with an environment-friendly solution to polythene plastics, the team was hit with a blockade of bottlenecks that made it difficult for the product to reach users.
Fast forward, the team has redirected efforts to a more market-specific product. In a move to eliminate the use of single-use non-biodegradable plastics by tree and fruits nursery operators in the country, the scientists collaborated with Bangor University and developed a crop-based biodegradable plastic for seedling potting. According to Dr. Ephraim Nuwamanya, who heads the biochemistry unit at NaCRRI, nursery operators are a critical market to target as they use tonnes of plastics which is later dumped in farmlands, leading to soil degradation.
“Focusing on nursery bed operators is a good market entry point because the aim of the innovation is to help solve the challenge of soil contamination with piles of plastics,” he said. This justifies the need for a biodegradable plastic potting material with the ability to decompose in a short period of time hence saving the environment. This product now produced from cassava peels can also be developed from other agricultural waste such as banana and cassava peels, maize waste, wheat straw and rice straw, among others. Current research indicates Uganda produces about 1.4 million tonnes per year of agricultural waste from 6.5 million vegetable processing and other crops residues.
This plastic once planted with seedlings in the soil will degrade after six months, thereby adding nutrients to the soil however, Dr. Nuwamanya still notes some challenges affecting the technology. “The product is prone to damage by termites”. He quickly reveals that the team is addressing these issues through formulation of a novel usable wide-spectra organic insect repellent from botanical extracts such as Tithonia Diversifoia and Cuban oregano as an inclusion in bioplastic crop storage bags.
Mr. Joseph Mbihayemana – Senior Intellectual Property Officer notes that the biodegradable potting bags are long over-due. “The cost of polythene plastics may appear more affordable now but in the long-run, managing it is costly,” he says
The technology is a game-changer for tree nurseries and the horticulture industry as it is environment-friendly and requires less labour during planting according to Bangor University’s Adam Charlton. He notes that the team is no looking to engage development partners and private sector to establish a processing facility in Uganda for large-scale production. In this initial phase, Bangor University (who have the required machinery) has processed only 90 metres of the biodegradable plastic sheets, which were shipped to Uganda.
The first shipment is now being used to pilot nursery trials in collaboration with Mount Elgon Tree Growing Enterprise in eastern Uganda, where they are raising tree seedlings wrapped in biodegradable plastics in Mbale City. The sites are acting as demonstration sites where farmers growing vegetables and tree seedlings come to learn.
Stakeholders and partners on this initiative met at NaCRRI in Namulonge on 27th March 2023 to engage with the prototype and held deep discussions on critical technical and policy issues around the technology. According to Dr. Nuwamanya this technology is set to succeed. “We are on it and we will make it happen. After failing with packaging and single-use plastics used all-over, we want to make sure that we don’t go wrong on seedling pots, with their immense environmental and agricultural value,” he noted.