Priti Salian is an independent Bangalore-based journalist who writes on culture, social justice, and human rights. Her bylines include The Guardian, BBC, NBC News, National Geographic, and Bright.
A company that makes packaging out of plant fibers hopes to address two problems at once: air pollution from the burning of crop stubble, and landfills and waterways clogged with plastic.
BANGALORE—Last fall, near the southern Indian city of Bangalore, Kurian Mathew received an earnest call from a local silk farmer. “Every month, tons of mulberry leaves are left over from our pruned plants,” the farmer said. “Would you like to use them at your factory?”
Along with two partners, Mathew runs a pilot plant for a German company called Bio-lutions, which uses agricultural waste to create eco-friendly food packaging. So when the farmer called, he agreed to try mulberry stems and leaves as raw materials. “A week later, sacks full of mulberry leaves were delivered at our doorstep,” he recalled.
The leaves were shredded and dried for two days in the front yard of the small factory. They were then cleaned, mixed with water, and converted into self-binding fibers in a patented machine. More water and centrifugal force turned the fibers into a pulp, which was then passed through a forming machine and a hot press—and voilà, packaging trays for vegetables and fruits were ready.
Mulberry leaves are just one kind of plant material that Bio-lutions can turn into packaging. Wheat and rice straw, sugarcane leaves, banana stems, pineapple leaves, and tomato plants are all processed in its factory using just 3.7 to 5.3 quarts of water for slightly more than 2 pounds of product, no added chemicals, and very little energy. Since only water and plant residue go into them, the products biodegrade easily.
“Our products are like leaves: They biodegrade in three months,” Mathew said. “We’re just giving another life to agricultural residue by converting it into something usable.”
India’s plastic waste is a big contributor to pollution, and not only within the country. A 2017 study found that of the 10 rivers that drain more than 90 percent of the world’s plastic debris into the oceans, three flow through India. At the same time, stubble-burning by farmers is so pervasive that it is responsible for an estimated 90 percent of Delhi’s pollution during the fall and winter months. Bio-lutions is addressing two of India’s big environmental problems at once, producing a biodegradable alternative to plastic and utilizing crop residues that would otherwise be burned.
India generates some 15,000 tons of plastic every day, equivalent to 5.5 million tons per year. (By comparison, the United Kingdom generates 3.7 million tons annually, and in 2010, the United States produced about 31 million tons of plastic waste.) Of those 15,000 daily tons, only 9,000 are recycled. The rest goes into landfills and water. India’s rules for plastic waste management, which mandate clampdowns on unlicensed plastic manufacturing, are poorly enforced.
Bangalore produces about 3,500 tons of garbage, including plastic, daily. “Being a resident of Bangalore, I have seen enough garbage all around, and wanted to contribute in some way,” said Mathew. So when Eduardo Gordillo, the Hamburg-based founder of Bio-lutions, raised the idea of opening the company’s first plant in India, Mathew grabbed the offer.
Mathew has relatives who own farms in southern India, so he was aware of stubble-burning. Farmers across India burn significant amounts of agricultural waste to clear their fields for the next crop. Although there are numerous uses for that waste—it can be plowed back into the ground as a nutrient or used as roof thatching, for example—farmers rarely use it except as animal fodder or mulch.
Jessica McCarty, a geographer at Miami University in Ohio who has studied stubble-burning in India, said that most farmers don’t know of other options, and if they do, “[they] also need to be cheap or subsidized for the farmers to switch their management practices.” Bio-lutions pays farmers for their crop waste.
Since early 2017, the company has supplied its packaging (which is approved by India’s food standards authority) to online grocery stores. Bio-lutions’ products are only marginally more expensive than the plastic variants, and have found a ready market. With a five-year, interest-free loan from a German bank, the company is preparing to manufacture tableware as well.
Next month, Bio-lutions is moving into a new, larger factory in Mandya, an agricultural district near Bangalore. Being closer to farmer sources will reduce its transportation costs and carbon footprint. The new factory will employ about 60 people and has already received enough orders, Mathew said, to give the company an annual turnover of 2.5 million Euros.
The company hopes to begin setting up factories elsewhere in India next year. A shortage of crop waste won’t be a problem: “We [would] need to set up at least 10 factories in just one agricultural district of Punjab to consume all their residue,” Mathews said.
This model is a good alternative for agricultural waste management, according to McCarty. But she warns of perverse incentives: If manufacturing from crop waste really takes off, farmers might be tempted to abandon agro-ecology practices like improving soil fertility to sell all their residue. “So, be careful what you wish for,” she said.
CORRECTION: The previous version of this article misstated the amount of plastic that India produces annually. The article has been updated.