Cassava root moving from the kitchen to the factory

. Oct 28, 2019
cassava mandioca Photo: Gerhard Waller/ Esalq Photo: Gerhard Waller/ Esalq

“I salute the mandioca! One of Brazil’s greatest achievements.” Former President Dilma Rousseff was ridiculed for this declaration back in 2015 but, in actual fact, there is nothing that unites Brazilians more—north to south, east to west—than cassava. Known locally as mandioca, macaxeira, or aipim, the root can be found on dinner tables all across the country in various different forms. But recent research from engineers at the University of São Paulo (USP) suggests that cassava’s benefits may go beyond the kitchen.

</p> <p>A team of USP researchers has used cassava starch to develop a biodegradable plastic film that is, according to early testing, more resistant and versatile. Developed in partnership with USP&#8217;s Polytechnic School and the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, the cassava plastic was made by using ozone gas to process starch extracted from the vegetables. The &#8220;ozonated&#8221; samples had higher tensile strength, lower solubility, and a more hydrophilic surface.</p> <p>The patent for this new material has already been filed, and there is a hope that soon it may be used in industry as an alternative and more effective form of packaging.</p> <h2>A better starch</h2> <p>Researchers around the world turned to alternative methods of producing bioplastics some time ago, in a bid to replace conventional fossil-fuel-based plastics with materials that are more biodegradable and environmentally sustainable. One of the most common raw materials used is starch, often extracted from corn, due to being abundant and cheap.</p> <p>The difference with this research project is precisely the modification of the cassava starch by treating the resulting films with ozone. Compared to plastic films of native cassava starch, the modified material proved to have improved qualities, particularly for use in packaging.&nbsp;</p> <figure class="wp-block-image"><img loading="lazy" width="768" height="403" src="" alt="plastic cassava" class="wp-image-26568" srcset=" 768w, 300w, 610w" sizes="(max-width: 768px) 100vw, 768px" /><figcaption>Photo: Gerhard Waller/ Esalq</figcaption></figure> <h2>Cassava plastics  </h2> <p>This would not be the first time that Brazil&#8217;s favorite root vegetable would be used to make plastics. In southeast Asia, cassava is similarly widespread and in the early 2010s Indonesian entrepreneur Kevin Kumala began developing plastic bags made from the root&#8217;s native starch, marketing them through his social enterprise Avani.</p> <p>Mr. Kumala says his Cassava Bags are 100 percent biodegradable and non-toxic, often proving so by dissolving a bag in water and drinking the result.</p> <p>In Brazil, researchers from USP were developing cassava plastics as far back as 2004. Since 2015, they have focused their efforts on improving the qualities of these materials by modifying them with techniques such as ultrasound, radiation and now ozonation.&nbsp;</p> <p>“[Ozonation] is a green technology, friendly to the environment,&#8221; said Bolivian researcher Carla Ivonne La Fuente Arias, speaking to <em>Jornal da USP</em>. She is currently undergoing a Ph.D. at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture. &#8220;This is the focus, modifying [the starch] with ozone in a way that will improve its properties in its native form,&#8221; she said. The next stage involves taking the material to the Polytechnic School in São Paulo so that it may be produced on a semi-industrial stage.</p> <h2>Recycling in Brazil</h2> <p>The need for biodegradable plastics in Brazil becomes even more pressing when you observe the country&#8217;s <a href="">recycling habits</a>. According to the <a href="">Waste Atlas</a>, a free-access map of waste disposal around the world developed in partnership with the University of Leeds, Brazil&#8217;s recycling rate is a shameful one percent, ranking it third-last out of 164 countries. Germany&#8217;s rate is 47 percent.</p> <p>The generation of solid waste is also staggering, with Brazil&#8217;s three most populous states making a combined total of 34 million tons per year.</p> <p>In São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, government efforts to reduce single-use plastics have been put in place, such as a blanket ban on plastic straws in commercial establishments. 

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