When meals come on areca plates

When meals come on areca plates
A stray cow scavenging on a heap of wasted food in plastic containers is a common sight these days. If such plates are made of biodegradable materials, they will not only be eco-friendly, but also be a good source of food for animals. Areca sheath tableware finds a place here. In fact, areca cultivation is witnessing an eco-friendly value addition by means of tableware made of its sheath. And these products are slowly replacing the plastic ones.

The areca tree has a large leaf wherein the leaf stalk — called areca sheath — is used for the making of tableware. The sheath is roughly rectangular in shape and measures about a foot in width and up to four feet in length. A special feature of areca sheath is that it has a thin semi-transparent shiny layer on the inner side which looks as if it is laminated. The areca sheath can be heat moulded too. Due to these properties, it is becoming a popular eco-friendly alternative to serve food.

It is a win-win situation for everyone involved in the process: areca farmers, tableware manufacturers and the consumer. While the farmers and tableware manufacturers earn a living from it, the end user can relish the real taste of the recipe served on the natural tableware. Above all, leaf-based tableware is biodegradable and cause no environmental hazard. “Food served on areca plates have a special aroma which is liked by many,” says Manjunath Hegde Andalli, a large-scale manufacturer of areca tableware at Sirsi town in Uttara kannada district.

The process
Selecting the right sheath to make the tableware is crucial. “I select thicker sheaths that have fallen from mature areca trees. They should be fresh, and devoid of fungus,” says Manjunath Hegde Mundagod, who has been in the business for many years now. “It would be better if they are bigger in size, so that the number of cups or plates made per sheath is more and wastage is minimal,” he adds. “In our unit, the areca plates are graded and sold on the basis of their quality,” says Maithri Hegde, who has been running a processing unit called ‘Maithri Industries’ for the past 12 years.

So, how are they made? First, dry areca sheaths are collected from the farmers in bulk. Then, they are taken to the factory, where the sheaths are soaked and washed by dipping each of them in a water tank. Later, excess water is drained out. Then, an individual sheath is taken to the moulding machine and is moulded into tableware at a high temperature. Either electricity or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) is used to generate desired temperature. Each machine is designed to mould the cup or plate to a specific size and shape. Once done, they are bundled and transported.

As traditional areca cultivation is largely organic, areca sheaths carry no chemical residue. The process of washing and high temperature heat pressing makes the areca tableware germ-free. As per the order, plates are made in the diameter of four, six, eight, 10 and 12 inches. There are also orders for square and rectangular sized small cups in addition to the tea cup sized ones. “Unlike plastic or paper ones, these plates can bear a weight of up to two kg,” opines Manjunath Hegde Mungdagod.

Increasing demand
As the society is becoming environmentally conscious, the demand for such kind of eco-friendly tableware is increasing. There are about 10 large-scale manufacturers producing over eight different types of areca sheath tableware with a production capacity of over 3,500 to 6,000 tableware a day in Uttara Kannada. This is in addition to about 100 small-scale processing units.

Maithri Hegde says that the total production of leaf-based tableware in Karnataka in a year exceeds 10 crore pieces (inclusive of all types of products) from about 6,000 small and large industries. Harikrishna Bhat, a producer of areca plates at Shivamogga produces five lakh plates a day in the season. A major chunk of the products goes to Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and Goa. Within Karnataka, apart from Bengaluru, many other cities and towns and specifically, northern districts prefer areca plates. Interestingly, a considerable amount of areca sheath plates are exported to USA, Australia and Europe.

“I had ordered 1,000 areca plates for my son’s wedding last summer,” says V Ganapathy of Sirsi. “It gave a traditional touch to the gathering and was appreciated by many,” he adds. He is not the only customer who is happy using these plates. “Many of my regular customers insist that their food be served in areca plates only,” says Paranjape, a Goa-based resort owner.

However, it is not a cakewalk for the manufacturers. Many of them face a lot of hurdles to meet the growing demand. Like many other agricultural activities, this industry is also facing shortage of labourers as the process is labour intensive. “Instead of the manual moulding machines which are used, hydraulic machines can save labour and the production capacity would be better. But the high price is the obstacle,” says Manjunath Hegde Andalli. Additionally, due to very small land holdings, one cannot collect large quantity of sheaths at one time. This adds to the transportation cost. Furthermore, dry areca sheaths are available mainly from December to April only.

Difficulties apart, this is certainly a healthy trend to keep our surroundings clean by reducing the dependence on plastic. To know more, one can contact Manjunath Hegde Andalli on 9241239030 and Manjunath Hegde Mungdagod on 9739380830.
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