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Hong Kong startup tackles plastic pollution with water-soluble 'invisible' bags

Invisible Company has created a range of polymer bags that dissolve in water, leaving behind only carbon dioxide. Co-founder Devana Ng explains how the company is using an innovative approach to drive awareness of the perils of plastic

author icon By Anna Cummins | 30 July 2021

Hong Kong has an enthusiastic relationship with plastic bags. Roughly 768 tonnes of plastic bags are sent to landfill in the city every day, according to government figures from 2019, accounting for 7% of all municipal waste. This means 9.6 million plastic bags are thrown away every day by Hongkongers, the equivalent of 1.3 bags per person per day.

Local NGO Green Power estimates 10% of discarded plastic bags don’t even make it to landfill – instead, becoming scattered across the urban environment, ultimately ending up entangled in trees or floating in the ocean.

While hiking along Hong Kong country trails, outdoor enthusiasts Devana Ng and her partner Flavien Chaussegros found themselves aghast at the plastic bags and other rubbish strewn around.

“Every time we went out hiking, we found lots of trash: sports gel packets, snack bars and so on, all disposed of on the mountain,” says Ng, who previously worked in marketing. “We started picking it up, but you’d come to the same place the next day, and it’s all back. Clean-ups can only do so much – we realised we have to think of a solution for companies, so all this rubbish doesn’t stay on Earth for decades.”

The company is in talks with an undisclosed supermarket to provide shopping bags

In 2009, in an attempt to reduce the plastic problem, the SAR government launched a 50-cent plastic bag levy.

While the levy has been credited with reducing the number of bags thrown away, environmental experts point out that the levy has caused an increase in the use of non-woven fabric bags made from polypropylene, paper bags with plastic components, and rubbish bags. Green groups have argued the cost should fall on retailers and manufacturers (‘polluter pays’) rather than putting the onus on consumers.

In 2019, Ng and Chaussegros joined forces with friend Jorge Torres and a small R&D team to find eco-friendly materials that could be commercialised as alternatives to plastic packaging and bags.

When the team came across polyvinyl acetate (PVA), they knew they had found their solution. Invisible Company was born.

In just over one year, Invisible Company says it has replaced 1 million individual pieces of plastic packaging

Co-founders Devana Ng and Flavien Chaussegros

PVA is a water-soluble and biodegradable synthetic polymer invented by German scientists in the 1920s and first commercialised in Japan in the 1950s. It is commonly used in items such as medicine capsules, contact lenses, laundry pods and glue.

“We thought: why not use it in packaging?” says Ng. “That’s when we created the Invisible Bag.”

An Invisible Bag is made from PVA combined with starch, glycerine and water, and printed with non-toxic ink. It looks and feels like a conventional plastic bag but is compostable and environmentally safe – breaking down naturally into just water and carbon dioxide when consumed by microorganisms. It takes 45 days to become 78% degraded under anaerobic conditions in a landfill, i.e., liquids leaking out of the waste pile are pumped back into to the waste to boost decomposition.

The bag’s biggest party trick is that it will totally dissolve when mixed with water, leaving behind nothing but carbon dioxide.

Invisible Company has also partnered with A Plastic Ocean Foundation to create a limited-edition Ocean Blue bag

Invisible Company, which changed its name from Distinctive Action earlier this year, now works with 200 brands in Hong Kong and in countries such as the UK, Taiwan, Colombia, Portugal and the USA. In just over one year, the company says it has replaced 1 million individual pieces of plastic packaging.

“I think [this interest] is because of Covid,” says Ng of their initial success. “People are staying at home, looking back at what their habits used to be. Many people are talking about eco-friendly materials now because we’ve all had to use more single-use plastics such as masks and utensils, and it’s triggered a lot of people to be more eco-conscious.

“Of course, for a lot of brands, things have been tough economically, and we’ve found that many brands are not willing to spend money on sustainability as a priority. But Covid has definitely been a trigger for us all to think about how we can make the Earth better.”

The Invisible Bag, which is manufactured in locations across Southeast Asia and China, is not a complete replacement for plastic. Being dissolvable in water means the bags cannot be used for anything with moisture, such as frozen food. There may also be a problem if the bags are used outdoors during a heavy rainstorm. But they remain an excellent solution for mailing bags and consumer goods such as clothing, toys, food, cosmetics or electronics.

A biodegradable mailer in a Hong Kong letterbox

“The challenge is changing people’s mindset,” says Ng. “People like to stay in their comfort zone and use something that already exists. A lot of people ask questions at first like ‘why is it water soluble?’ But after a year, they stop questioning and just use it. There’s always a time frame for that.”

Current clients include L’Occitane, Mazu Resortwear, Green Monday and Emma Wallace. Ng says Invisible Company is in talks with an undisclosed supermarket chain.

“We don’t compare Invisible Bag with normal plastic bags because they are in a different category,” says Ng, explaining that each Invisible Bag costs around three to five times more than a plastic bag.

“And, if you are talking about a million bags, obviously that [difference] is a lot of money. But we are focusing on the cost of the product’s afterlife, rather than the economic cost. Plastic stays there for decades, breaking down into microplastic. That’s the real cost of plastic.”

Around 1.3 plastic bags are thrown away per person every day in Hong Kong. Many end up in the ocean

Ng says the product is at a comparable price point with paper bags and other biodegradable bags. “The manufacturing cost of plastic is so low. The only way we can compete there is to get more people using our product to lower the unit price.”

In May, Invisible Company launched its first B2C product, the Invisible Poo Bag. Designed to help eco-conscious consumers pick up after their dog hygienically, the bag can be dropped into a pet-waste bin or even flushed. A box of 120 bags costs HK$120.

“Feedback so far has been positive – we know people want to switch to biodegradable bags because they want to be plastic-free, and pet owners are willing to pay for that,” says Ng.

Invisible Company says its product can be a catalyst for change. “There are people in Hong Kong willing to spend a Sunday afternoon picking up trash that someone else has dropped. It’s a good community,” says Ng. “We organise clean-ups, and some people who come along tell us they’d never done a clean-up before because they thought it would be dirty. Because of us, they have given it a try. We’re trying to plant that seed in their minds – I think this is the first step of education.”

The Invisible Poo Bag is a new product for dog owners

Invisible Company has also partnered with A Plastic Ocean Foundation, a Hong Kong-based anti-plastic organisation, to create a limited edition “Ocean Blue” bag. From this, Invisible Company will donate 5% of profits to the foundation. The company has also joined the foundation on educational tours in schools.

“Invisible Company is an absolute pioneer in the area of sustainable packaging,” says Willy Kwong, executive director of A Plastic Ocean Foundation, which conducts education programmes in local schools, covering topics including water sanitation and microplastic pollution. “They are a startup with unlimited energy and potential for both tremendous environmental and social good.”

Ng reveals that at the end of the year, Invisible Company plans to release a product made from a new material that she describes as ‘food related’. “If the product is workable, it will bring enormous change to the industry,” Ng says.

For such a new startup, Invisible Company has made a lot of noise. The focus is now on developing a global market.

“We think more and more people are willing to change, given the opportunity,” says Ng. “We avoid greenwashing and all the messages we deliver are transparent. We see ourselves and see the company and the materials as the future.”

www.invisible-company.com