But the threat of climate change and the potential for another bacterial outbreak still linger over Lembongan Bay. This part of Bali has also lost a number of seaweed farms to tourism developments, clearing of wetlands, and pollution. To ensure a more resilient seaweed-farming industry this time around, the farmers will have to develop more resistant varieties of algae, experts say.

“Climate change and the accompanying El Niño will significantly destroy seaweed farming in Indonesia,” says Ketut Sudiarta, a scientist in the fisheries department at Bali’s Warmadewa University. “This has happened now. Almost all of Indonesia has failed and most of [the farms] have been abandoned by farmers.”

But if the industry succeeds, it could become a weapon in the fight against climate change. The algae grow quickly — 30 to 60 times faster than land-based plants — and absorb carbon dioxide from the water and atmosphere. If cultivated at scale, that makes it an important carbon sink, which can then be harvested and used as a biofuel in place of fossil fuels.

It could also be the solution to that other environmental bane in Bali: plastic waste, of which Indonesia is the world’s second-biggest contributor, after China. Seaweed can be processed to make food containers — biodegradable, edible even — that could replace the conventional single-use plastic containers that account for much of the trash fouling Bali’s beaches and seas.

According to Sudiarta, “it’s very possible, especially for the big brands,” to make the switch from plastic containers to seaweed-based packaging. For now, though, a host of small companies are pioneering that effort.

‘Seaweed over plastic’

David Christian started his company, Evoware, in 2016, in response to the plastic waste crisis in his hometown of Jakarta. He makes edible seaweed cups under the Ello Jello brand that come in various colors and flavors, from orange to green tea. The company also produces edible food wrapping and single-use sachets, typically used for instant coffee or food condiments.

At a restaurant in central Jakarta that serves ice cream in Evoware cups, Christian explains how his initiative is more than just a corporate venture.

“We want to support the farmers in making a living from a sustainable source,” he says, dressed in a T-shirt with the slogan “Seaweed over plastic.”

“Seaweed does not take up land, it doesn’t lead to deforestation, and no fertilizers are used,” he adds.

A young woman at an orphanage in Jakarta makes Ello Jello brand edible seaweed cups. The orphanage keeps the profit from the sale of the cups. Image by Jonas Gratzer for Mongabay.

Christian is involved in a 4Rs campaign — reduce, reuse, recycle, replace — that aims to reach a million people with its sustainable goals. Evoware’s social involvement sees youths at orphanages in Jakarta, Bali and Malaysia produce and sell Ello Jello cups and keep the profit. Production is limited at present, about 500 per day, and testing is still going on. But orders have come from 900 companies in 52 countries, and Christian says full-scale industrial production of containers and cups should happen later this year.

“The demand for these products will only increase, and the cost of production will decrease,” he says, adding that reactions have been positive and that he welcomes other companies exploring similar solutions.

“We all have the same goal of beating the conventional plastics,” Christian says. “The market is enormous and we need many players, so why compete with one another?”

Future of bioplastics

One such company is Avani Eco, based in Bali and producing shopping bags (printed with “I am not plastic”) from cassava fiber since 2014. It also makes drinking straws from paper and cornstarch, as well as food boxes from bagasse, the dry, fibrous residue from sugarcane processing. The company garnered widespread attention when co-founder Kevin Kumala dissolved one of his bags in lukewarm water and drank it, to emphasize that it was non-toxic and entirely biodegradable.

While new technological advances have blown the field of bioplastics wide open, seaweed holds the most promise due to its versatility and the sheer scale of current production. The global seaweed market was valued at more than $4 billion in 2017 and is estimated to pass $9 billion by 2024, about 90% of it E. cottonii. Food production is still the main destination for the crop, and expected to keep growing, but alternative uses are being explored. These include seaweed as biomass for fuel, as well as for use in fertilizers, animal feed, and wastewater treatment.

Back in Nusa Lembongan, seaweed is being put in service to the area’s predominant industry: tourism. Komang Astawa, 33, is one of the island’s three newly trained seaweed farmers, the recipient of a 2-acre patch in the bay with 400 lines of seaweed. He plans this year to start taking tourists on snorkeling trips on his seaweed farm.

“I want to show tourists how we grow the seaweed, and how we harvest it,” Astawa says. “Seaweed is a big business. There are many ways to make money in it.”