Sunday, September 27, 2015

Mushroom as a brave innovation for new plastic?

While I was trying to find Do-It-Yourself Youtube's video on how to cook a simple mushroom dishes, a 'suggested video' entitled Eben Bayer: Are Mushrooms the new plastic? appeared at the side of my tiny, unassuming internet browser. I was taken aback not by the fascination of this newly-heard concept, but by how long I have been on internet that I started to watch the possibility of re-engineering conventional plastic manufacturing from the initial intention of learning how to cook dorm-style simple mushroom dishes. Jokes aside, I was inspired by the speaker who is also the founder of "Ecovative" and a co-inventor of "Mycobond". According to Eben, Mycobond is a technology that utilizes mycelium (root network of fungi that have polymer-like structures found in synthetic plastic) that can have the potential to replace synthetic plastic in terms of tensile strength and durability. The development of mycelium is not demanding, and instead helps to remove agricultural wastes as it obtains nutrition from rice husks or woody biomass. Since the building block is chitinous polymer, mycelium can be molded to form free-shaping materials that have insulating and resisting properties including heat, acoustic sound, and atmospheric moisture.

The growing processes are described in four steps:

1. Selection of agricultural waste materials. This can be anything that is abundant and easily available in the nearby proximity. 

2. Tools to place the waste and grow the fungi. The container can be anything, in any shape that will eventually act as a physical enclosure

3. Storage. We place the filled up container in the cool dark place to allow the mycelium and the fungi associated to proliferate the entire container

4. Harvest. The remains of the waste materials will be mostly used up after 5 days (depending on the size of the initial container) to form white and moldy mycelium. The millions polymer chains can then be processed further to be used for packaging, protective buffer or for decoration purposes. 

Nature has always provided us with ways to live our life in harmony with the Earth's ecological system. Synthetic polymers that give rise to Styrofoam are difficult to be naturally-degraded over a short period of time. Mechanical breakdowns of such materials will only cause further damages as pollution of micro-plastic has now sparked interests among many wild-life conservationists and the environmentalists because negative impacts found in living organisms or habitats are becoming widespread and common.  Although the public's perception of natural plastic made out of mushroom can not be accepted as fast, but the hope and willingness to change are there. I'm hopeful and optimistic that synthetic plastic derived from finite crude oil can one day be replaced with mushroom's mycelium. 

Video taken from:

Friday, September 18, 2015

Haze: a Reflection Part 2

Last week, I have posted my overall take on the whole haze incident that hit Singapore, Malaysia, and Indonesia. However, after looking at recent news on how the haze problem has become worse in parts of Sumatra (Riau, Jambi, and Pekanbaru), I want to dedicate another blog post to discuss/share my opinion on the matter.

Just yesterday (22/09/2015), I was looking through my Facebook feed and was shocked by a news article published by Channel News Asia entitled, "Protesters in Kalimantan decry Indonesian inaction against forest fire, haze". What caught my attention was not the prolonged duration of the haze, but the severity of the matter. The PSI reading in Palangka Raya (Central Sumatra) reached to a record high of 1995! Yes, you are reading that right, a number that represents the year of my birth; a number so high that a direct exposure for 10 consecutive minutes could cause devastating respiratory problems.

The figure was taken yesterday to depict the thickness of the smog/haze in Palangka Raya 

Let me introduce you to haze, and why it is such a big and unresolved matter that constantly plagues the locality. Most cases of haze are resulted from deliberate acts of land-clearing to provide enough space for palm-oil and paper pulp plantations. Over the years, efforts to reduce haze have bear little to no fruits, and one of the primary reasons is the fact that there are many parties/individuals who are involved in the issue. This would prevent any law-enforcing officials from pinpointing the exact players/actors who orchestrated the entire conspiracy/incidence.

Many palm-oil plantations in Sumatra are not single-handedly owned by a company from a single nationality. For instance, many Singaporeans set up subsidiary companies in Indonesia using local names and manpower to establish a plantation. This subsidiary company will then set up another subsidiary company using Malaysian identity to elude the officials from discovering the main players who actually authorized slash-and-burn practice. Despite officials managing to "catch" some executives of the allegedly responsible companies, these people are just the 'minions' who are readily sacrificed by the bigger players to save themselves. Even if the effort is commendable (as it is a step towards the right direction), it is not enough to completely stop the problem if the people at the top-of-the-food-chain are not dealt with properly.

Nevertheless, I was inspired by the acts of kindness and the solidarity displayed by the Indonesians to raise awareness and care for the susceptible. It was heartwarming to see Indonesians in parts of Palangka Raya sharing masks to the elderly, the sick, the children, and to those who were outdoor working; the officials evacuating the entire city to the nearest district with less haze until the condition has gotten better, the non-government activists who tirelessly protested in front of the government's house until were taken, and doctors who gave free aids for the sick. The nation as whole has become more aware of the problem and has worked together to lobby the local government and companies to take actions. I'm optimistic that in the future, if the people continue to act as one, the haze problem can be dealt with and eliminated once and for all. 

Cunico, K. (2015, September 22). Protesters in Kalimantan decry Indonesian inaction against forest fires, haze - Channel NewsAsia. Retrieved September 23, 2015, from

Friday, September 11, 2015

Haze: a Reflection Part 1

Throughout this week, the haze has gone from bad to worse as the air quality (PSI) index soared at the average of 100-200 in some of the days. As some may have realized, high concentrations of haze may become hazardous to human health, the ecosystem, and the environment in general. One of the main causes of haze is forest fire that happened in Indonesia and Malaysia as a result of either prolonged dry season or deliberate clearing of forested lands through slash-and-burn method. Many critics placed the blame on the local and central government by claiming that their responses in enforcing associated regulations or forecasting potential spots were slow and ineffective; while others blamed the palm oil companies that used unsustainable methods to expand/establish new land (clearing by fire). Nonetheless, it is undeniable that forest fire can cause major environmental (air) pollution because forests store large amount of carbon in trees and within the soil, which will be released/emitted into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, haze, and smog in the presence of fire.

As an Indonesian, I'm certainly disappointed and enraged by the haze problem. But through this post, I want to discuss certain matters regarding the haze in a more optimistic point of view, so here I go.

First, enforcing and regulating laws for both local and international palm oil plantations are certainly a challenge for the government. One of the main reasons is because of the decentralized governmental system where the central government may pass a law that can be undermined by the regional governments (since each province is given the autonomy or power to override regulations and to rule itself). The regional governments have their own objectives that may differ from that of the central, such as rapid economic development versus sustainable growth or increased regional income versus nature preservation goals. Furthermore, cases of corruption (although the number of REPORTED cases is now decreasing), become major obstacles in mitigating forest fire in general. The layered, long hierarchical levels of governance in Indonesia (from town head all the way to the central government) makes corruption appears to be much more more lucrative and elusive as tracing becomes increasingly difficult. In a nutshell, it is not so simple to eliminate haze in a matter of days or even years; the complexity and convoluted governmental system in this large nation just make it for us difficult to do so.

Secondly, I feel that our current president (Jokowi) has done a pretty good job in handling the issue through a relatively fast response. On Monday (7/9/2015), when the fire became rampant, he immediately flew directly to South Sumatra (Pekanbaru and Riau) to see the incidence by himself and to lead the whole extinguishing process. Some of us might not be consciously aware of these types of small details as we were too preoccupied with the negatives that we failed to see the amount of effort being put in. In parts of Riau, the haze is so devastating that the index reading has reached over 500 during some of the worse days. Imagine poor families who do not have access to sheltered houses and air conditioning, and have to work outdoor (farming) just to feed the family. Although our haze problem in Singapore is bad, but most of us, if not all, have immediate access to sheltered indoor space that can negate or at least minimize dramatically the effects of haze.

Through this post, I want to implore some to not be so condescending or cynical to our neighbors, but instead we should show support so that the haze problem can be solved as soon as possible.

Nazeer, Z. (2015, September 7). Indonesian President Joko Widodo goes to haze's ground zero, SE Asia News & Top Stories - The Straits Times. Retrieved from "The Straits Time".

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Energy Source from The Cultivation of Floating Micro-Algae?

I have always wondered the possibility to have a sustainable source of bio energy on a scale that can compete with fossil fuels but does not consume as much water, land, or fertilizers that any bio-fuels would normally require.

Recently, I read an interesting scientific journal entitled, "Microalgae Cultivation Using Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA)" which explained the prospect of cultivating micro-algae that lives mostly on coastal area, feeds on waste water, and forms oil as the byproduct. This immediately caught my attention, and I began to read further just to discover another amazing feature being proposed in this idea. Unlike any other more conventional primary energy sources, this alternative form of bio-fuel does not emit large volumes of carbon dioxide, as the micro-algae can photosynthesize; utilizing solar energy to produce oxygen and take in carbon dioxide instead.

This seems to be a promising solution to end human's dependency on fossil fuel which causes many harms to the environment due to the production of large amount of harmful pollutants. In addition, excessive smog generated from the combustion of coal can impose negative health consequences and degrade the immediate ecosystem. On the other hand, apart from solving the energy crisis, the cultivation of micro-algae to produce bio-fuel can assist us in treating waste water discharged from nearby coastal cities (primary source of nutrient), reducing carbon dioxide emission, and re-allocating precious fresh water for food production instead of synthesizing other, more conventional bio-fuels, such as palm oil.

However, as I read further, I questioned if  this alternative seems to good to be true? If it is, why would not cities or nations collaborate to invest more resources to develop this seemingly perfect solution to our current energy crisis/dilemma? I could think of two possible reasons:

1. There has yet to be a thorough research or enough safety evidences to prove that cultivating this type of micro-algae would do more good than harm. Let say if this organism can synthesize toxic substances that can affect the marine life, nearby coastal residences, and even settlements located further away. Not only does this affect the ecosystem, but also the economies of the city as fisherman may not be able to catch sufficient fish, people may contract new types of diseases, and government may need to invest more capital to mitigate the consequences. So, I feel that there is a large extent of fear that may be tied in with the possible negative implications associated with this idea.

2.  Oppositions may arise in countries with a severe water crisis issue (Singapore may be one of them). Imagine the waste water, the main ingredient of this system, is discharged into the ocean to produce bio-fuel. The waste water, which is normally treated and recycled, will be lost in exchange for energy/bio fuel. To some water-scarce nations, this trade may not be necessarily favorable. Furthermore, to some countries, this idea is not viable as they have no nearby/immediate access to coastal environment.

The journal and many people are hopeful that this idea can become a future alternative for our current energy crisis. I'm hopeful that if this idea were to be realized, our energy source would be much cleaner and more environmentally friendly.


Journal Article taken from:

P. Wiley, L. Harris, S. Reinsch, S. Tozzi, T. Embaye, K. Clark, B. McKuin, Z. Kolber, R. Adams, H. Kagawa, T. Richardson, J. Malinowski, C. Beal, M. Claxton, E. Geiger, J. Rask, J. Campbell and J. Trent, "Microalgae Cultivation Using Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae (OMEGA)," Journal of Sustainable Bioenergy Systems, Vol. 3 No. 1, 2013, pp. 18-32