The state government's crackdown on commercial establishments using banned plastic materials has pushed restaurants and businesses to embrace eco-friendly and age-old forms of packaging. From cloth bags to banana and areca nut leaves, Tamil Nadu's ban on plastic has increased the demand for alternate materials -- a decision welcomed by farmers and producers.
“Before December 2018 we got bulk orders only for wedding return gifts or from big clothes shops like Pothys for their big-shopper bags. Now we are getting orders from smaller traders too,” says Mary, a Coimbatore-based entrepreneur who manufactures jute bags.
Haridoss, another Coimbatore-based paper bag manufacturer, also says that the ban will lead to an environmental-friendly population. “I have been in this business since 2009 and now I run a production facility that is producing 5 lakh paper bags a month. There is scope for more and after the ban I am expecting an increase in the number of orders too,” he adds.
Though paper bags are a good alternative to plastic, people are primarily turning to cloth bags for its reusability. “We used to manufacture jute bags alone but because of this ban many of our own customers asked if we could also supply cloth bags. Hence we decided to make cloth bags ourselves and supply them,” Mary explains.
While jute and cloth are the go-to material for bags, farmers in the region are cheering as well. Hotels and eateries are opting to pack food using layers of banana leaves and newspapers, which has led to an increase in the demand for banana leaves and areca nut leaves.
"Banning plastic is one of the best measures for environmental and health gains. Previously people were using banana leaves for packing food items but plastic and papers slowly ate our revenue. Now since the ban is in place, people are opting to use banana leaves again," says Kandasamy, a banana farmer based in Coimbatore.
Kandasamy owns a five-acre ancestral land on which he cultivates banana. So far, the demand for banana leaves are high only during the auspicious months of the year when there are weddings and other functions. And though the plastic ban is expected to change that pattern, Kandasamy is cautious. He says that it is too early to quantify the increase in business. "It’s not even one week since the ban. Yes, we are seeing an increase in demand for the leaves as of now, but it takes time to see massive difference in income," he adds.
Kamalakannan, a farmer who cultivates areca nut in Perur and Thondamuthur in Coimbatore, notes that consuming food on areca nut leaf plates has its own health benefits. "I think people prefer this more. Of course, hot food served on areca nut leaves has its own distinct flavour,” he says.
However, this sudden demand for leaves have also made the farmers concerned about the shelf life of the leaves. Kandasamy says that though banana farmers earn good money in months when weddings and other auspicious functions happen, in the other months their products earn very little for them. "For example, it is now Margazhi (mid December to mid January) now. No auspicious functions will happen this month. So nobody cares for banana leaves and hence we will be able to give the leaves for nominal rates to hotels for packing. But, in Thai (from mid January to mid February), a lot of weddings happen and our banana leaves will be sold for a good amount. During such times, selling leaves to hotels for a nominal amount will be loss for us."
Kamalakannan also adds that though areca nut leaves and products have a longer shelf life than banana leaves, the seasonal nature of the leaves poses a threat to their livelihood. “The leaf-shedding season is short and in this geographical belt, rainy season is longer. So basically we get a very short window to actually pick the raw material to make the products,” he adds.
The farmers want a solution to these issues they face so that their revenue stream is not affected. “I think institutions like the Agricultural University should come up with methods to preserve banana leaves for months together so that the consumer and the farmers are benefitted," adds Kandasamy.