Rice starch as an alternative to synthetic plastic to reduce environmental hazards

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The Dopper Changemaker Challenge started in 2017 in the Netherlands. This year, it took place in Kathmandu along with other popular European cities including Amsterdam, Berlin, and London. The final of this international competition was held on 15th June Saturday not only in Kathmandu but also in Amsterdam, London, and Berlin. In total 445 students from all over the world applied to get a chance to win the title of Changemaker 2019.

In conversation with one of the finalists of Dopper Changemaker Challenge 2019, Bigyan Subedi, whose research was on finding out the properties of rice starch in turning into biodegradable plastic. Read the article to find out more about his experience.

bigyan-subedi

1. Could you introduce yourself and your thesis to us?
I am Bigyan Subedi from Parbat district and had completed my Bachelor’s in Food Technology from Padma Shree Intl. College, Kathmandu. The topic of my research was the preparation of starch film from broken rice, so my research was basically on finding out the properties of rice starch to see if it can be a biodegradable alternative to synthetic plastic or in common terms to develop plastic that decays. Starch is a carbohydrate that is commonly found in every agriculture and fruit commodities. It’s the stored energy of cereals and fruits which we consume as food. Since we have unlimited starch-rich agricultural resources, starch can be a sustainable resource for biofilm being cheap, renewable and biodegradable.

2. What pushed you to choose plastic pollution reduction as the topic of your thesis?
Firstly, plastic pollution is a major problem worldwide. Researchers all over the globe are continuously trying to find alternatives to plastic. Similarly, as a food technology student, I have always been aware of food packaging plastic and how 2/3 of the world’s plastic waste originates from it. After finding out the possibility of replacing plastic with starch, I decided to research more on this topic as a part of my graduation thesis. If this could be used as an alternative then a lot of environmental problems could be addressed so that gave me a push too.

3. What challenges did you face while conducting the research?
When it comes to research in Nepal, it’s almost always about not having the right technology and resources. There are not proper lab facilities and commercial plants to scale it up. The idea of making plastic from starch is still in it’s starting phase so there wasn’t a lot of help we could get. Although starch has successfully replaced plastic in countries such as Thailand and Bhutan, who now make biodegradable plastic, it’s still in a nascent phase in Nepal. Because of this constraint, we couldn’t even make a standard prototype to test if the product would be successful commercially or not. I’d say we couldn’t study the practicality of the research because of the lack of modern tools.

4. Since the research wasn’t possible to the extent it could’ve been, how was the implementation phase like for you?
The main concern for me was to test three properties of the starch film- biodegradability, permeability to moisture and its solubility in water. Although we couldn’t make actual plastic products from starch, we made a circular prototype of film through it and tested the mentioned aspects.
Besides that, I partnered with another finalist, Amrita Sigdel to work on the field to reduce plastic straws through a movement we named “No-straw movement”.  We went to 300 plus restaurants and advised them to replace plastic straws with either paper, steel or bamboo straws and also helped them find vendors. So, in that aspect, I think we were able to create an impact even if it was very small. 

5. How was your overall experience at Dopper Changemaker Challenge?
Well, I found out about the challenge through my friend Isha, who suggested me to apply since she knew I was working on a relevant idea. Honestly, I wasn’t all that hopeful that I’ll be selected as a finalist with limited ideas and resources in this topic. Plus, it’s not something that could be commercialized because of its high installation costs and difficulty in experimenting. All of these thoughts had kept my hopes down until I finally got selected as a finalist. Although that didn’t change everything¸ I got a chance to advance my thesis a little further with the funding and support I got from Dopper and HCI accordingly. Along with that, I got to connect with like-minded individuals, network with experts, learn and share my idea to polish it and improve my pitching skills. I would say I got a whole new learning experience through the challenge and would suggest others to participate next year too.

6. Do you think the challenge could’ve been better? Was there anything that could’ve made your thesis stronger?
I think everything was perfect from the organizer’s side. They were majorly supportive and always there to help us in any way possible, from looking at our proposals, pitch to helping us network with significant individuals/institutions. However, I think we received the grant a bit later from Dopper which lagged our research by 2 months and it leads us to pressure during the end period. Nevertheless, the challenge, as a whole, was well organized and effectively implemented by HCI in Nepal.

7. What are your future plans?
I’m planning to work on taking my research further by conducting the same in my Masters too. Right now, I have been sharing my findings with a few others who are planning to convert the idea into a startup. Besides that, I’m guiding my juniors and sharing my findings with them too so that they can research further on it too.

8. You mentioned that this idea has already been commercialized in other countries, but what is its status in Nepal? Has anyone else conducted similar research?
I did come across a few published types of research on the same topic but as mentioned earlier, they’re only on the nascent phase. There wasn’t much I could learn from them as they had similar resource constraints to test and experiment. I think my research got a step ahead because I got funding from Dopper and could work without the burden of finances.

For more information about this thesis, please connect with Bigyan Subedi at subedibigyan77@gmail.com.

Interviewed and article by Yangzum Lama.