This is the final product of pumpkin sponges. Source: Ibérica de Esponjas Vegetales.
This is the final product of pumpkin sponges. Source: Ibérica de Esponjas Vegetales.

Pumpkin sponges: how to save plastic in your daily habits

Ibérica de Esponjas Vegetales (Pontevedra) is working on the development of natural products as an alternative to the consumption of polluting goods

Plastic has flooded our lives, it’s obvious. It appears in food packagings, cosmetic products, clothes or building materials, among other areas. According to Greenpeace figures, the estimate is that by 2020, consumption will rise to 500 million tonnes a year, 900% more than in 1980.

Faced with this paradigm, new substitute products emerge, made with alternative materials to plastic that are less (or even nothing) harmful to the environment. Under this premise Ibérica de Esponjas Vegetales was born in 2013, directed by forest technician Juan Carlos Mascato.

This is a pioneering agroforestry company in the growing of pumpkin sponges for cosmetic use, based in Caldas de Reis (Pontevedra), which was born as a search for alternatives to other agricultural systems in Galicia. It uses a raw material that replaces synthetic products: the luffa, a kind of pumpkin belonging to the Cucurbitaceae family.

The elaboration of the genetic base

In order to adapt it to market’s needs, it was necessary to develop, by genetic selection, a plant with softer fibers and standard sizes, so that they would allow certain logistics. “Explained in a simple way, the genetic base of the plant and its crosses are selected and then the product is developed”, explains Juan Carlos.

Different fibre intensities are obtained through this process. There is even a “super soft fibre”, specific for sensitive skins or those with some type of disease. This work of elaboration of the genetic base is key, since it is the differentiation point of Ibérica de Esponjas Vegetales.

Juan Carlos says that this Cucurbitaceae plant with cross-pollination is a very complex species and is the basis of the whole company: “Without the plant there is no product, so we have to take care of it”. Although they have a very powerful seed bank, every year it is necessary to carry out the whole process of development and stabilisation of new species and variants, a task which is carried out by two people.

Due to the complexity of this process, Mascato explains that they introduced a change in the business structure; in Galicia the genetic base is carried out while the crops are in Portugal: “We cannot devote ourselves directly to the crop because it is protocolised, so we decided to develop the cultivation systems so that they would be independent”. In this way, the company subcontracts crops, implements its own protocol and monitors the plots.

Reducing plastic consumption at home: luffa scouring pads

This year, after three of development, the company has achieved one of its greatest goals of its entire trajectory: the “very powerful” world patent for the compostable kitchen pad, made with a more resistant and elastic fibre. Moscato defines it as “an absolute milestone, possibly one of the most important products that have existed in Europe in recent years”.

“The compostable kitchen scouring pad is probably one of the most important products in Europe in recent years”

This alternative solves important problems of pollution with microplastics at home, and, in addition, Mascato affirms that it is the only possible solution on a large scale on a material level: “All European homes have a scouring pad in the kitchen; in 2022 EU wants to ban synthetics, and the only way to do it is with our fibre”.

The raw material they work with is 100% biodegradable and does not cause pollution during processing. To generate kitchen scouring pads, energy consumption is zero, while “cellulose scouring pads, which come from a chemical company that decomposes wood, come from an extremely polluting process,” explains Juan Carlos.

Benefits for the environment

The company had a clear roadmap from the zero minute: a business model with sustainable crops, non-polluting production processes and 100% natural products. This combination of factors is the key to the company’s profitability and success, which is the differentiation of its merchandise through social responsibility.

By not using any type of chemical product, the environmental impact is zero; moreover, the raw material used is compostable, which means that the life cycle of the sponge is closed when it returns to the soil in the form of fertilizer, so that it does not produce waste or leave any trace in nature.

With the elaboration of these vegetable products thousands of tons of plastic residues are avoided

“If we talk about tons of plastic waste that we eliminate with this activity, the figure rises to thousands,” says Juan Carlos: “There is no marine pollution, nor drinking water. A water treatment plant does not filter out the microscopic polymers left by the classic yellow synthetic scrubbers, nor the silicone microplastic that carries common cosmetics; all this goes to the water tap”.

Right now, the company has 50,000 plants in production between Spain and Portugal. Recently, Mascato has acquired a company in Colombia with the aim of expanding its product in the American and Canadian markets. Currently, they are already consolidated in Europe and Australia; the next targets are China and Russia.

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