Science & Technology

Young entrepreneurs help India curb air and plastic pollution

IIT graduates come up a with a solution to India's crop residue burning problem

 
By Meenakshi Sushma
Last Updated: Wednesday 21 November 2018
Crop residue burning
The machine by IIT alumni Arun Kumar and his friends can convert paddy starw into pulp, which can then be used to prepare disposable cutlery. The machine by IIT alumni Arun Kumar and his friends can convert paddy starw into pulp, which can then be used to prepare disposable cutlery.

It's trying times for both the government and people. Despite appeals, fines, a Supreme Court order and a central government scheme that offers stubble management machines at subsidised rates, crop residue burning continues across Punjab and Haryana, choking Delhi and enveloping the entire northern India with dense toxic smog. In fact, instances of stubble burning are also increasing in parts of central and southern India (see ‘Fields on fire’, Down To Earth, 16-31 May, 2017). Farmers say they set fire to the farm-land after harvest as it is cheaper than clearing the crop residue manually or by using machines. The practice is rampant across rice-growing belts as paddy straw is neither considered a suitable fuel nor cattle feed.

Now three graduates from the Indian Institute of Technology, New Delhi, have developed a machine that can incentivise farmers to uproot stubble. The machine, developed by Ankur Kumar, Kanika Prajatat and Pracheer Dutta, converts the hardy straw of paddy into a fibrous raw material that can be used by pulp moulding factories to prepare dispo sable cutlery. Paddy straw is rich in silica, which slows down its rate of degradation. “Our machine uses an eco-friendly chemical that can strip the straw of silica, making it supple and usable,” says Kumar. He refuses to divulge details of the chemical, saying their start-up Kriya Lab is still in the experimental stage. However, they claim the machine can convert one tonne of paddy straw into 500 kg of pulp, which can then be sold at Rs 45 per kg.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that farmers can earn about Rs 5,000 by selling the pulp made from an acre (0.4 ha) of straw. The trio are confident the machine can be used to start commercially viable ventures as following government restrictions and bans on the ubiquitous plastic, there is a growing demand for eco-friendly cutlery and packaging materials, particularly the ones made from biomass waste.

Riding on bagasse and millets

The growing market for sustainable home goods in India had caught the attention of Rhea Singhal, a young graduate in pharmacology, when she relocated to Delhi from the UK after her stint as a senior sales executive at pharmaceutical major Pfizer.

“India does not have a culture of waste management. Plastic is cheap and therefore the most used material for disposable cutlery. So in 2009, when I started Ecoware, my aim was to also challenge people’s mindset and plastic’s monopoly,” says Singhal, whose start-up uses farm waste to prepare disposable tableware. With 27 distributors across the country, Ecoware’s annual turnover has now touched about Rs 25 crore.

In Mumbai, PAPPCO Greenware manufactures disposable tableware using a variety of biomass waste, which include sugarcane bagasse, bamboo fibre and wheat straw. “We source the raw materials from across India as well as from Thailand,” says Abhishek Aga rwal, founder of PAPPCO Greenware. “Within the country, our products are regularly bought by food chains and restaurants like Burger King, Starbucks, McDonald’s and five star hotels like Marriott and Hilton. We also export our products to Dubai, Portugal, Sri Lanka and parts of West Africa,” he says, adding that the company has grown 10 folds since it was established seven years ago.

Taking the concept of eco-friendly cutlery to another level, Hyderabad-based Bakeys Foods Private Limited sells “edible cutlery”. “We make our cutlery with dough made from a mixture of sorghum, rice and wheat flours, kneaded with hot water and baked in moulds,” says Narayana Peesapaty, a former researcher with the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), who started the company in 2010. “We make spoons of three varieties—savoury, sweet and plain,” he adds. Bakeys’ website claims the company plans to expand its product portfolio by introducing edible forks, soup, dessert and yogurt spoons and even crockery. 

But not everybody is getting carried away by the concept. “Eco-friendly glass costs upwards of Rs 10 while I can buy a plastic one just for Rs 2,” says Akankshya Padhi, a college student in Delhi. “Though I am against plastic pollution, the cost of green products is is prohibitive for students who operate on a meagre budget of less than Rs 100 per day,” she says. Singhal admits that the immediate cost of eco-friendly disposable cutlery is higher when compared with plastic. But people must consider the health and environ mental benefits of such products while buying them, she says.

A change is in the air, and it’s only a matter of time before eco-friendly cutleries stop being the alternative and become the default choice instead. The trend beame evident in June this year when Maharashtra enforced a ban on plastic. Soon, food delivery companies Swiggy and Zomato added an option to their database which allows users to refuse disposable plastic cutlery. Swiggy has, in fact, launched an initiative that connects restaurants with makers of eco-friendly cutlery and packaging materials. As a major impetus to the change, the Indian Railway Catering and Tourism Corporation has embarked on a project to replace its plastic cutlery with cups and plates made of biodegradable material in all premium trains.

(With inputs from Tanushree Dutta)

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