Elephant grass: a circular all-rounder

After a holiday in Borneo, Jan-Govert van Gilst had an epiphany. Seeing that entire swathes of jungle had been cleared and the beaches were overflowing with plastic, he knew something had to change. With the encouragement of his wife, Jan-Govert started with a clean slate and embarked on an adventure into the unknown. Now, five years on, thousands of bioplastic packs are rolling off his conveyor belt every day, and soon tomatoes, cold meats and biscuits – all in sustainable packaging – will be available in Dutch supermarkets.

Jan-Govert’s first major achievement was winning the Zuid-Holland Prize at the end of 2012 for his idea to grow bamboo on building sites which had been abandoned as a result of the financial crisis. The crop would be used for co-firing in coal plants. With the €50,000 in prize money, he was able to develop this idea further. But it soon became apparent that bamboo wasn’t the right choice. Even when grown on a large scale, it has little effect in terms of sustainability. Jan-Govert refused to give up. He got in touch with Wageningen University, where they pointed him to another fast-growing crop: elephant grass.

A journey of discovery to achieve a real impact

Self-proclaimed Chief Elephant Grass Officer of his company, called NNRGY, Jan-Govert got straight to work. He says, “I learned that elephant grass contains cellulose, which you can use to make all sorts of things. It’s amazing because the grass is easy to grow and requires little or no care. You plant it once, and can harvest it for the next twenty years or so. The first field we planted filled up fast. You plant it in spring, it loses its leaves in September and dries out in winter. It’s ripe for harvest the following spring. The chopper then cuts it up into small pieces – this is the actual raw material we work with. The product name, Vibers, was born by chance when an adman accidentally misspelled the English word fibres in his notes. All the products we manufacture are released under the Vibers label.”

Pallets in the living room

Jan-Govert says he experimented a lot before hitting on the winning formula: “My first idea was to use it to make paper, and I succeeded. We called it ‘here paper’ because it’s made here, not somewhere else. Production went smoothly enough, but we had to keep it small because we didn’t yet have access to enough elephant grass. In just a short time, there were six pallets of paper in my living room, where my wife and I would pack up the orders we got on Twitter. It was a fun adventure, but we knew it wasn’t going to make a very big impact, and we were making next to nothing out of it. That’s why I was more or less forced to go back to work as an ICT specialist for a time.”

Cast in concrete

It wasn’t long before Jan-Govert found a new use for his elephant grass. He explains, “I discovered there were a lot of subsidies available for developing biobased materials, so I went to see a professor in building materials. We came to the conclusion that elephant grass would be an excellent filler for concrete, the most widely used material in the world. Elephant grass can sequester, and thus store, up to four times as much carbon as other plants. In addition to the environmental benefits that organic concrete offers, it’s lighter and the fibres help make it stronger. I applied for the subsidy myself – by that, I mean I didn’t use a consultancy firm, which is what most people do. I presented my idea to a selection committee, and my application was approved. Together with Eindhoven University of Technology, we developed an environmentally friendly concrete, which can be used to make the most fantastic things. In fact, we just built a very nice set of benches for the municipality of Bergen op Zoom.”

Packaging

In addition to the paper and concrete industry, NNRGY is now taking on the plastics industry with an initiative launched last year. Jan-Govert says it quickly became clear that waging war against the industry is the wrong approach. A charm offensive, it turns out, is much more effective. He explains, “Again, elephant grass is the perfect component for this industry. It can be processed using existing machinery. And once the packaging bears the seedling logo (called the kiemplantlogo in Dutch), it can be disposed of as organic waste after use. I did an experiment using tomatoes in Vibers boxes in my very own window sill. I discovered that elephant grass absorbs 300 per cent of its own moisture. This brilliant feature means it can protect produce from mould and harmful bacteria, and even extend the shelf life of these products. The best bit is that absorption has absolutely no effect at all on the packaging. It’s as good as new.”

Vibers in the shops

Jan-Govert is now in touch with all the major supermarket chains in the Netherlands. The first Vibers bioplastic packaging has been on the shelves in BoereGoed shops since mid-May. And since pressure from consumers and lawmakers is growing by the day, the timing couldn’t be better. If all goes to plan, Vibers packaging is set to take off in a big way. Jan-Govert has teamed up with ABN AMRO to develop a growth model for Vibers packaging. They’ve reached an agreement whereby the bank as lender “grows” with the company with the guarantee of a full order book. Since one of the bank’s top priorities is to promote the circular economy, the financing of Vibers is in line with ABN AMRO’s goal to grant 100 circular financing packages by the end of 2020.

Gratifying work

You’d be hard-pressed to find a nicer, more dedicated “CEO” than Jan-Govert. He says, “I do this because I want to make an impact. I enjoy it and am so grateful for the opportunity to do what I do. It doesn’t feel like work. All our staff are here because they’re committed to the cause and find the work gratifying. This year, we plan to focus on our packaging and will be expanding our concrete applications as well. We’ve also set our sights on a range of consumer products such as greeting cards and bioplastic storage containers marketed by the sustainable retail chain WAAR [meaning both “true” and “merchandise” in Dutch]. When ABN AMRO issued a press release about the partnership, the phone started ringing off the hook with calls from horticultural businesses interested in Vibers.” When asked if he ever wonders if he may have bitten off more than he can chew, Jan-Govert says, “I’m not a worrier. I just take things as they come.”