An estimated 550 million tonnes of crop residue is generated in India every year. While a portion of this is used as fodder for cattle, a bulk of it is either thrown away as waste or burnt, with the latter proving to be a major environmental concern.
In an effort to put this natural by-product to good use and also curb the use of plastic, which is another major pollutant, a Bengaluru company is making ecological, sustainable packaging from agricultural residue.
“Take tomatoes sold in supermarkets. You may be growing it organically but are finally selling it wrapped in plastic. We, however, can use a tomato plant to make a tray to sell the vegetable, which can be thrown away after use and will easily go back into the earth,” says Kurian Mathew, Managing Director of Bio-lutions India.
Kurian first met Eduardo Gordillo, founder of the Germany headquartered organisation, nearly seven years ago. “We have kids and we wondered what kind of world are we leaving behind for them?” he recollects.
The Bio-lutions team.
After Eduardo developed the idea of biodegradable packaging solutions to move beyond petroleum-based plastic, he approached Kurien and his friends to open a pilot plant in Bengaluru.
For 1.5 years now, the plant has been buying crop residue from farmers in the region and converting it into eco-friendly products.
When the team started research in Germany and China, they found rice and wheat straws to be the major contributors of agricultural residue. However, in India, these are used as fodder for cattle and they decided to look for other plants.
Today, a variety of fibrous plant residue from sugarcane, pineapple leaves, mulberry and areca are used to make their products. A patented technology is used to convert natural fibres into self-binding fibres.
“We can take the husk of coffee from coffee processing units and use it as a filler. Can you imagine going to a Café Coffee Day and drinking coffee from a cup which is made of coffee fibre?” he asks.
“There are several verticals that we are growing into and packaging is one of them. It is something people use regularly; they bring it home and then throw it away with the dry waste. Because in India we don’t have a system of recycling,” says Kurian.
Disposable tableware is another aspect they are focusing on. According to data they received from Maharashtra recently, the demand for 10-inch plastic plates, commonly used in parties, is 93 lakh per month.
“Till the time we got into the industry I never thought we consumed so much. Can you imagine the amount of plastic that is thrown away, is not recycled and ends up in the sea?” he asks.
“Then there are hospital disposables such as bed pans, trays and so on. The industry spends so much money to procure them and to sterilise them. This is while we can make something from agricultural residue and it does not even need to be recycled. It is as good as a leaf falling to the ground,” he adds.
Back to earth
A mixture of plant fibre and water, minus any chemicals, is used to make these products and the company says they degrade naturally over time as a plant would. A biodegradable coating is sprayed on certain products to make them water and oil resistant if required.
“Even if it takes 90 days or six months to biodegrade, it is not harming the earth,” Kurian says.
In comparison, a plastic cup or a paper cup coated with wax will take years to decompose and the chemicals in them will pollute the soil.
The packaging products are not very expensive and are on par with food grade plastic. Currently, the company is supplying packaging for fruits and vegetable to online grocery store BigBasket. It is also working to upscale its production and expects to move to a new and bigger plant in Maddur by the end of May.
“India is the one of the fastest growing economies in the world with one of the largest populations. We are over a billion people in our country and if we can substitute what we consume in plastic, then my daughters can have a better life,” Kurian says.