Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Can Brazil’s plastic bag bans give a lift to Amazon jute growers?

For decades it was the main fiber used in making shopping bags and coffee sacks – jute, also known as burlap, a plant grown in various locations along the Solimoes River. Between the 1950s and the 1970s, demand for the product collapsed with rise of plastic bags that became an unfortunate symbol of prosperity throughout the developed world. Now the clock may be turning back as cities around Brazil join a growing global trend toward plastic bag bans or taxes.

Three private Brazilian companies and a fourth government-backed joint venture are hoping jute production can provide an alternative for some 15,000 families in the northern Brazil, according to a fascinating story by Martha San Juan Franca in Brasil Economico. Small farmers in remote areas of Amazon state grow the crop along riverbanks, harvest it, and then soak them to separate the fibers from the stalk. From there they send the fiber off to Manaus and then Belem to factories where it is processed and turned into cloth.

Since Brazil is the world’s biggest coffee producer, a major outlet for jute production is the 60-pound sacks used to export coffee beans. Making reusable shopping bags out of a natural fiber that is produced by Brazilians in Brazil could become a niche market product in cities such as Sao Paulo and Belo Horizonte that cut down on supermarket plastic bag distribution (Rio de Janeiro says it has “discouraged” their use, which I can’t say I’ve seen many signs of).

This strikes me as an interesting take on packaging, which is at the heart of the world’s growing solid waste problem. I have to admit I find it considerably more practical than the “green plastic” solution that relies on the country’s ethanol behemoths without providing a boost for small businesses, and still more innovative than the usual nylon bags that get passed out at eco-friendly events.

But at the same time jute sacks seem to create at least some of the same problem as green plastic – they’re both biodegradable, but nobody seems to know quite what to do with them when they’re done. I was unable to find any reference online to any significant reuse of coffee sacks. What actually happens to that burlap sack after it arrives at an upscale New York coffee shop carrying its prized organically-grown coffee? From the number accouterments like these made from coffee sacks, it’s hard to imagine there’s much reuse really going on.

I’d be interested to see how this develops, particularly if burlap shopping bags start replacing the nylon ones.

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