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From Sweet Potato to Plastic

As the region forges ahead with efforts to achieve sustainable consumption and production arrangements, an undergraduate-student initiative to produce biodegradable plastic from sweet potatoes is yielding significant results.

The applied research by final-year, Cave Hill student Kerry-Ann Bovell has garnered widespread attention at a time of increasing global cries for countries to retreat from waste-generating, extractive, industrial economic models in favour of a waste-free, pollution-free model. This type of production model, with an aim of optimal waste elimination, could underpin a regenerative or highly touted circular economy where every resource is recycled or repurposed for continual use.

Bovell’s research coincides with an imminent ban on petroleum-based (petro-based) plastic in Barbados as the Government pursues a policy to create a one

hundred percent green and carbon-neutral economy by 2030 and to further preserve the island’s coastlines and marine environment.

To fill the void left by the ban on petro-plastic, while introducing products to reduce marine degradation, renewed interest has been placed on discovering alternative products that are environmentally friendly.

Bovell’s interest in the environment and its preservation started at a young age. As a child, she was fascinated with books about animals, the universe and geography. This fuelled her desire to attend Harrison College to cultivate her love of the sciences and then to The University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus to attain a degree in Chemistry.

Although not her official course of study, Kerri-Ann maintains a keen interest in the study of Environmental Chemistry and Materials Science. It is therefore no surprise that she became an active member of the Cave Hill Environmental Club where she observed the problems posed by single-use plastics, especially on beaches, and resolved to find an environmentally-friendly solution.

"As a young person, you need to look around you and see where the issues lie and try to find a way you can solve them," Bovell advised. She became determined to use her education to solve real-world issues instead of merely "regurgitating stuff, taking tests, having an employer, doing the same thing every day."

Local Adaptation

The idea of using sweet potatoes as a source for plastic was inspired by similar work being done by other scientists globally.

"It is not purely my invention; I just fit it for our local economy," she stated noting that although starch-based plastics were common in some parts of the world, she knew of none made locally from sweet potatoes.

Bovell realised that many local factories use starchy ingredients such as breadfruit, cassava and sweet potatoes to make products, such as flour. The skins of the provisions are discarded completely or, at best, used for compost. She

came to the realisation that there may be another effective way to utilise this waste product in a food-secure manner and, hence, the idea was born.

The process of creating plastic from sweet potatoes is a careful and complex science: "The starch is extracted from the vegetable itself or from the skin then using acetic acid, distilled water and glycerol as my main ingredients, I go through the science in the lab using correct temperatures, perfect ratios, percentages," Bovell explained. Once she has a transparent mixture, it is poured into the mould that is currently a flat surface, and a material similar to a plastic wrap is formed.

Bovell’s vision for her research is to create pellets that can be used to make plastic bags, cups, pep bottles and other products. However, further testing is needed to make the product a perfect substitute to petro-based plastics, as not all bio-based plastics are the same.

She explained, "We still have to test it to ensure it is insoluble at certain temperatures and conditions for food; so if you have something hot and you put the plastic on it, it will not melt."

Bovell’s research was featured late last year at the launch of Blue Lab, an initiative of the United Nations Development Programme to promote, among young people, innovation and experimentation as it relates to sustainable development in the Caribbean.

She maintained that her focus is not on being recognised but on learning as much as possible from her teachers and postgraduate students. Bovell advises other undergraduates to surround themselves with stalwarts in the field to gain insight and inspiration from their work.

Looking towards the future, Kerri-Ann plans to pursue postgraduate studies in Food Science or Materials Science. So far, she is interested in programmes at universities in Germany and the Netherlands. However, Kerri-Ann is determined to return to Barbados to practically apply the knowledge she acquires.

"I do intend to go overseas but still come back, because this is the emerging market here ... Why not come back and bring all the information you've learned," she declared.

Bovell remains hopeful that the “take, make, waste” model of production will be shunned by her compatriots in favour of one that repurposes materials to help Barbados become a vibrant Caribbean example of sustainable green living.


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