Lakewinds is "First in the U.S." to Use Biodegradable Shopping Bags Made from Tapioca

This shopping bag won't be around for long.This shopping bag won't be around for long.

It was a serendipitous encounter on a red-eye flight back to Minneapolis that led Penni Rubin to an amazing discovery.

Rubin, operations director at Lakewinds Natural Foods, sat next to a man who was also heading home after business travel in Indonesia.

After a few minutes of small talk, Rubin learned that David Melander, of St. Louis Park, was leading the development of a new kind of shopping bag. Not plastic. Not paper. But biodegradable tapioca resin.

Since that fateful meeting, Lakewinds has become the first in the U.S. to use these bags.  Now when you shop there, you don’t have to decide between “paper or plastic,” but rather “paper or tapioca.”

According to Rubin, these revolutionary bags begin as flour made from the roots of the sago plant, where tapioca comes from. (Another form of tapioca, from the cassava plant, can also be used.) Next, the flour is processed into a starch, which gets blended with a biodegradable form of plastic at a 1:1 ratio. This compound is then manufactured into strong, stretchy, translucent, sweet-smelling (it’s true!) bags that, when composted or buried, completely biodegrade in about 10 weeks.

Indonesian sago pearlsIndonesia has almost 5000 square miles of naturally grown sago that are not being utilized; that’s enough to yield almost 19 million tons of starch per year. Sago is so hardy, it grows like a weed; it’s easy to cultivate, resistant to pathogens, and frugal in its use of water and soil. As a bonus, the sago plant fights global warming by absorbing disproportionately large amounts of CO2.

The sale of these bags is already having a positive effect on the Indonesian communities of sago farmers and factory workers; the new revenue source is being used to pay fair wages, build houses, and open new schools.

Rubin says the next big things for tapioca packaging are yogurt containers and to-go coffee cup lids. Also in development are bags made entirely -- 100 percent -- of tapioca starch.

Just think, the next generation of these amazing bags will actually be edible! Soon, you may have a whole different choice to consider at the check-out counter:

“What flavor of bag do you want? Cherry, grape, or spearmint?”