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Sugarcane pulp to paper: One man’s environmental mission

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
Ngorn Makara admires his eco-friendly plates on display at a Phnom Penh supermarket. SUPPLIED

Sugarcane pulp to paper: One man’s environmental mission

Every day, Ngorn Makara collects the large blue buckets that the sugarcane juice vendors use to dispose of bagasse – the dry pulpy fibrous material that remains once the juice is extracted – and delivers the containers to the factory he works at. He hopes to make his fortune through up cycling the bagasse into useful products.

The bagasse is dried in the sun before being ground up by a large machine. Makara then boils the small pieces of bagasse and uses them to produce paper plates.

Makara, 31, told The Post, “The bagasse passes through many stages before it becomes the finished product. The process is not as simple as it sounds, because the bagasse cannot be ground until it is completely dry.”

He added that the boiling part of the operation takes five to six hours – and then it needs to be ground again before it can be turned into a sheet of paper. Finally, it must be thoroughly dried out once more before it can be pressed in a mould and cut into shape.

This is a basic breakdown of the process employed by MG Pacific Company Limited to produce its recycled paper plates.

Origins of a green dream

Entrepreneur Taing Socheat, the company’s president, said that he wanted to create something that was unique and environmentally friendly, and spent a lot of time conducting research and making sure he knew what he could realistically achieve.

“My company uses specific bio-waste to produce paper products. I looked into the possibility of making plates from plants, but my research suggested that to be profitable, I would need to invest between $130 and $200 million,” he told The Post.

He said that this was why he elected to operate on a smaller scale. Initially, he considered using bamboo, but he discovered that the bagasse of sugarcane has similar properties. The fact that it is plentiful, and usually given away for free, were also motivating factors.

He stressed that he was not the first in the Kingdom to make products from this material, but the last time it was used was the Sangkum Reastr Niyum era of the 1950s and 60s. He is unaware of anyone else that is currently using it.

“I researched and designed the machinery by myself three years ago – in 2018. I spent a lot of capital and time setting up the equipment and experimenting before we were ready to start selling plates in early 2021. The plates are still limited to small sizes, but we have plans to expand our range,” he said.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
One of MG’s workers turns sugarcane into pulp, used to manufacture the paper plates. SUPPLIED

Many paper products, from toilet paper to newsprint, are made from imported semi-finished products. Manufacturing these semi-finished paper products with local raw materials, locally made machinery and local labour is something Socheat is extremely proud of.

He said to find engineers who could build the machinery he needed, he had to meet with many local experts. Eventually, it was a combination of five or six workshops that built the equipment.

“We had to design the machinery from scratch because nobody was doing this kind of thing on such a small scale. The most common factories that do this kind of work can process 30 to 50 tonnes of raw materials a day, and to set up on that scale would be at least $130 million,” he added.

One advantage of the locally designed and built machinery was that it could be adapted and upgraded with relative ease. Thanks to his experimentation and constant honing of the process – and equipment upgrades – MG Pacific can process three or four thousand litres at a time. Originally, he could boil just one or two hundred.

The operation changed to semi-automatic cutting machines, as cutting them by hand was difficult, labour intensive work. After just ten plates, most workers hands are too weak to continue, so the initial production process was drawn out and difficult.

Socheat could not say with any certainty how many plates were produces per 100 litres of boiled bagasse, describing his production chain as moving like a cartwheel, always shifting, with no clear correlation between the always changing input and output.

“Drying, grinding, boiling and drying is more complex than it sounds, but I think I could employ a variation of the same basic process to use banana leaves and other natural fibres to produce drawing paper,” he added.

Socheat explained why he was currently focused on paper plates. He said that there was less demand for other products, and so far, economies of scale were important to the production process. He said the business was not profitable but there were still people who asked him for his formulas and processes.

For the love of the planet

He joked that they would not have to pay him for his ‘recipes’ – he would pay them if they were brave enough to try and make a profit from them.

“I do not believe that anyone can be involved in this business and become wealthy – and I have been in this industry for almost ten years,” he said.

His plant will soon relocate to larger premises, and Socheat expected to ramp production up to two or three thousand plates per day. The machinery will also be upgraded, he added.

“Paper plates are always more expensive than foam ones – although they are obviously superior from an environmental point of view. There is a lot of competition among paper plate manufacturers, however. Imported Thai products generally retail for eight or nine thousand riel for a packet of ten. Ours, which are larger, sell for 10,000 riel,” he said.

MG Pacific’s plates are now widely available at supermarkets in the capital, including Olympic Market and Carrot Market.

“Not all consumers are concerned about the price, but they do note that our locally made goods tend to be more expensive than imported ones. In our case, this is because our products are made by hand, whereas imported ones use automated machinery. Foreign products are usually made from a mix of bamboo and other substances, and include glue and other chemicals to make the products look white,” he added.

He said products made from pure sugarcane bagasse are a light yellow colour, like rice straw. There are no pure white products which are chemical free, and yet, if most consumers were asked, they would say white was the more expensive option.

He added that an environmentally friendly company would not employ glue in its manufacturing process, but would use natural starches to create a chemical-free alternative.

A vision of expansion

Besides plates, Socheat plans to introduce other products to grow the company.

“We will not grow by selling plates and bagasse paper. Anyone who thinks this could be profitable is welcome to try of course, but I intend to introduce a much wider range, in order to expand,” he said.

He offered to hand control of the business to the five staff who are responsible for production, saying they would be responsible for all income and expenses by themselves. They would be able to pay themselves from the company’s profits, but would receive no salary from him.

“I told the five of them – you guys can make the plates and sell them, and then you can collect the profits instead of getting salaries from me. They all replied ‘No! We are better working for salary.’ I assured them I would cover the rent and utilities, but still they would not agree to the deal,” he said.

When asked why he continues to run the business even at a loss, Socheat said that the company was his contribution to the environment and that he was thinking of the future of the planet.

Neth Pheakdra, secretary of state and spokesman for the Ministry of Environment said the ministry commended the company for processing its products from natural raw materials, or so-called bioplastic.

He said more and more people are aware of the harmful side effects of plastic products and are changing their behaviour, whether using baskets for shopping or carrying refillable water bottles. Many restaurants have implemented zero-plastic policies, as have some schools.

“We urge people to change their attitudes, reduce their use of plastics and choose natural products. For example, disposable products such as plastic straws are easily replaced with those made of paper, bamboo or even lemongrass,” he added.

Socheat suggested that all business owners should be honest about their company’s situation when giving advice to those who were thinking of entering their industry.

“I urge entrepreneurs, business owners and traders to tell each other the truth and stop trying to make themselves look good. Stop telling each other that your businesses are growing and profitable by inflating the numbers – to be honest, it is not easy for a small business to make a profit. Do not encourage people with little capital to risk it in an industry you know will likely cost them more than they earn,” he added.

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