BPE's natural packaging catches on amid health concerns

Biodegradable Packaging for Environment Plc (BPE), the world's only maker of foam cups and take-out containers from bagasse, is rebranding its products as Gracs as it renews its domestic focus.

Weerachat: Foam boxes carcinogenic

Managing director Weerachat Kittirattanapaiboon said the Thai market has warmly welcomed packaging made from bagasse _ a byproduct of processed sugar cane _ not only out of health concerns but also for the environment.

Thais generally regard foam boxes as harmful to health, as they contain styrene, reportedly a cause of cancer.

In mid-2011, the US Health and Human Services Department added styrene to a list of 240 substances "reasonably anticipated" to be carcinogenic.

Lab tests with both animals and humans, particularly industrial workers with chemical exposure, suggests exposure to styrene causes damage to white blood cells (lymphocytes) and may raise the risk of lymphohaematopoietic cancers such as leukaemia and lymphoma.

"For foam, it takes about 2,000 years to degrade. This is a serious problem in terms of environment impact," said Mr Weerachat.

He said BPE will promote its own brand, Gracs, after being an original-equipment manufacturer for many years.

BPE expects annual sales volume to double to 6,500 tonnes this year.

Some 80% of sales come from exports, mainly to Europe and the US, but ultimately BPE wants domestic sales to make up half of revenue.

Although foam costs two or three times less than bagasse containers, the popularity of the latter is rising in Thailand.

Last year, Chulalongkorn University and Bang Saen municipality announced plans to become foam-free areas.

"Consumer behaviours have changed rapidly since information about the carcinogenic substance became widely known," he said.

The company plans to list on the Stock Exchange of Thailand in the next three years to raise 400 million baht for a second production unit to handle fast-growing orders.

BPE will conduct more research to lower the cost of bagasse-made tableware and compete better with products made from foam and plastic. Bagasse can also be used to make medical equipment.

The company began commercial production in 2006 after nearly five years of research and development. In the first year of operation, it sold 70 million pieces. This year, it expects sales of 400 million pieces, double last year's level.

Mr Weerachat said concerns over the environment and health issues could drive sales to exceed the target.

Gracs can degrade within 45 days compared with 2,000 years for foam and 500 years for plastic.

The Green World Foundation reported Thais use 2.3 foam containers per person per day or 138 million containers daily.

To avoid carcinogenic substances, foam should not be used with hot and oily foods or those with a sour taste.

About the author

Writer: Yuthana Praiwan
Position: Business Reporter