Alt, shift, re-use

A plastic-free zone

As I step off the elevator of the building that I live in, my eyes fall on a notice from the local panchayat that is stuck on a wall. It is addressed to the residents of my society, reprimanding us for continuously failing to segregate our garbage into wet and dry — a significant amount of which happens to be plastic waste. We’re asked to get our act together within a week, else, waste collection from our society would be stopped. It is obvious that drastic times call for drastic measures. Similarly, the recent ban by the Maharashtra government on plastic bags and other single-use plastic products sent manufacturers, distributors, shopkeepers and consumers into a tizzy. But with India’s increasing waste management woes, coupled with the global plastic pollution crisis that the planet is grappling with, it has now become imperative that we understand the gravity of the situation.

So, how bad is it?

It is estimated that India generates around 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day, of which, Delhi contributes the most. Without a proper plan to curb this menace, the figure will continue to rise year-on-year. “The situation is critical as plastic consumption has increased manifold in the country,” says Priti Mahesh, chief programme coordinator, Toxics Link, New Delhi. “With the current ‘use and throw’ mindset of the consumers, the waste is obviously on an exponential increase,” she adds.

While it is accumulating in landfills and choking drains, polluting the oceans, endangering marine life and destroying ecosystems, plastic is also finding its way into our food and water. A study by Orb Media, in Washington, D.C., found that 83% of tap water samples collected from five different continents tested positive for microscopic plastic fibres, while 82% samples collected from New Delhi were found to be contaminated. Further studies revealed that even packaged water available across the globe contained microscopic plastic particles. What adds to the worry is that a recent study by the Indian Institute of Technology – Bombay also confirmed the presence of microplastics in popular salt brands in India.

“Microplastics is emerging as a big issue, and we need to take it seriously since it doesn’t just threaten to ruin the biodiversity, but it may also have serious health implications for us,” cautions Mahesh. “The need of the hour is to look at alternatives and adopt them immediately. We have to choose environmentally sustainable products wherever we can,” she stresses.

Innovative solutions

The first thing that comes to mind, when we talk about replacing plastic, is the ubiquitous plastic bag that we once thought was indispensable in our lives. Today, there are quite a few players in the Indian market who manufacture environment-friendly, biodegradable bags. However, one of the first few to come up with 100% compostable bags was the Bengaluru-based start-up BioGreen, founded by Mohammed Sadiq.

Made out of natural starch, vegetable oil derivatives, and vegetable waste, these bags decompose within 180 days, claim to be totally safe for the environment, and are non-toxic, even if consumed by animals. The BioGreen range of products currently comprises carry bags, garbage bags, pouches, food packaging material, and biodegradable water bottles, among other items. These are available for sale in retail markets across India, and also have an online presence.

Then we have Narayana Peesapaty, who, in his quest to reduce the menace of disposable plastics, has single-handedly started an edible cutlery revolution with Bakeys Foods in Hyderabad. He’s made it possible to use a spoon, and then, eat it too! Made from jowar (sorghum) mixed with rice and wheat flour, and baked at high temperatures, these spoons are completely biodegradable and decompose within a few days, and that’s only if you don’t end up munching on them first!

The Bakeys team is currently in the process of expanding the production capacity to manufacture different types of spoons, forks, small bowls, cups, and plates. These are only available for online order and do not come packaged in plastic. In recognition of his efforts, Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently awarded Peesapaty the Swachh Innovation Award in Indore.

Alternatives in tableware

Furthering the cause of eliminating plastic and styrofoam disposables, Ved Krishna founded CHUK, a Faizabad (UP)-based organisation for manufacturing environment-friendly food trays and containers that are ‘microwaveable, freezable and ovenable’. Made out of 100% compostable sugarcane fibre (bagasse), the CHUK range of tableware products decompose within 60 days. Recently, these food trays have been introduced by the Indian Railways in various trains like the Rajdhani, Shatabdi and Duronto Express. The Uttarakhand Government, too, has tied up with CHUK for making the Kedarnath Char Dham yatra eco-friendly and pollution-free this year on.

Meanwhile, Mumbai-based PAPPCO Greenware, one of India’s biggest brands when it comes to eco-friendly food packaging solutions, is rallying hard to bring about awareness regarding plastic pollution amongst Indian consumers and businesses alike. With about 150 products on offer in the tableware category, PAPPCO currently supplies to leading food and hospitality chains across the country. “All our products are 100% compostable, and are made of sugarcane and bamboo, which decompose easily within three months,” says one of the co-founders, Abhishek Agarwal. The product range is available at retail stores pan India, and can also be ordered online.

When asked about the response from the price-conscious Indian consumer, Agarwal admits that while the Indian market is more price-sensitive than its European and American counterparts, he does see India as a big marketplace due to the rising consciousness among consumers to reduce the use of single-use plastics.

Agreeing with him is Anitha Shankar, co-founder at Astu Eco, who says, “With growing awareness about plastic pollution in India through government-imposed bans, and the Swacch Bharat Abhiyan, there is a slow mind shift in today’s generation, and the purchase decisions are driven accordingly, towards greener alternatives. Metro cities with their higher disposable incomes are slowly gravitating towards eco-friendly options even though these products are currently more expensive than conventional plastics.”

Bengaluru-based Astu Eco currently offers tableware made of areca sheath, along with wooden cutlery, paper straws, and cotton shopping bags with compartments, which make a trip to the subziwala a breeze. Separate cloth pouches for storing vegetables in the fridge are also available. Along with co-founder Tejshree Madhu, Shankar is now working on utilising waste PET bottles to come up with more innovative products that will help decrease our plastic footprint.

Green sanitary products

You may not always find them on every supermarket shelf or stocked at your neighbourhood chemist, but eco-friendly, biodegradable sanitary products are very much a reality, and a whole bunch of options are available out there. Most of them can be ordered online.

Conventional sanitary napkins are 90% plastic, bleached with chlorine and contain chemicals that can cause a host of problems ranging from an irritating rash or UTI, to more serious diseases like cervical cancer. Cotton pads, too, if laden with pesticide residue, can cause hormonal imbalances or infertility. Plus, the toll that sanitary napkins take on the environment is huge. To combat these issues, Deepanjali Dalmia came up with Heyday, India’s first biodegradable, organic sanitary napkin. Made out of plant-based fibres of corn and bamboo, these napkins easily decompose within six months of disposal. Heyday products are currently available online, as well as in Delhi, Gurgaon, and Mumbai, with plans for expansion to other cities in the pipeline.

Similarly, “The Purganics feminine hygiene line comprising organic cotton sanitary pads and tampons is 100% natural, and free from plastics, perfumes, chlorine-based dyes, petroleum-derived products, and pesticides,” says founder Nisha Bains, who currently markets online and through live events.

Another option comes from Ahmedabad-based Saathi, a social enterprise founded by Kristin Kagetsu, Tarun Bothra, Amrita Saigal and Grace Kane, graduates of MIT, Harvard and Nirma University, who have developed an all-natural sanitary pad made from waste banana tree fibre. Unlike wood pulp or cotton, banana tree fibre is an agricultural by-product and does not require additional land or water usage. It is also one of the most absorbent natural fibres and is abundantly found in India. Saathi pads claim to decompose within six months of disposal, 1,200 times faster than conventional pads.

However, if you’re truly serious about minimising sanitary waste in landfills, then consider switching to a menstrual cup. These cups can be sterilised and reused to last a few years, and help in drastically reducing the amount of solid waste generated.

Eco-friendly diapering

Baby diapers are undoubtedly a mother’s best friend. But when it comes to the safety of the baby, and the environment, conventional, disposable diapers fall short. Similar to sanitary napkins, these diapers too contain chemicals, which can have adverse effects on the health of the baby. Plus, plastic diapers can take up to 500 years or more to decompose in a landfill.

Looking at these issues, Bengaluru-based Amrita Vaswani founded BumChum diapers. Their most popular option today is the hybrid cloth diaper that comes with a reusable nappy pad and a disposable insert. These inserts are made of a soft cotton cover with a diaper pad that’s made from non-toxic, chlorine-free biodegradable bamboo fibre. The diaper pad is disposable and can be replaced within the waterproof pouch of the reusable cotton covers.

For those of you who prefer to use reusable cloth diapers, one of your go-to options is Bumpadum, again in Bengaluru. “Modern cloth diapers are waterproof and keep the baby dry like disposable diapers, but are made of cloth and can be reused like traditional cloth langots,” says founder Anuradha Rao, who started Bumbadum as she was shocked by the amount of disposable diaper waste generated by her one-year-old daughter. These cloth diapers can be used 100-150 times depending on how well they are maintained. Based on the number of diapers sold so far, Bumpadum claims to have effectively prevented about 8 lakh disposable diapers from reaching the landfills.

Another mompreneur who has successfully managed to keep disposable diapers out of landfills with her range of eco-friendly, reusable and washable cloth diapers is Mumbai-based Pallavi Utagi, who founded Superbottoms in 2016.

Made of organic cotton and hemp, these diapers come with a dry-feel covering and a thin waterproof layer. Each diaper can be reused 200-300 times, thereby bringing down the number of diapers used by a baby from between 5,000-6,000 to only about 10-12 diapers. Additionally, the Superbottoms diaper packaging is also plastic-free. The products are packed in reusable cloth bags and dispatched in cartons. “If a product meant to reduce plastic pollution adds to the problem via its packaging, then it defeats the entire purpose,” says Utagi.

There’s more…

By now, if you’ve been amazed at the use of bamboo in tableware products, sanitary napkins, and diapers, then read on for some more genius ideas from Pune-based start-up, Bamboo India. Working with more than 100 bamboo farmers and artisans across India, Ashwini and Yogesh Shinde are doing their bit for the environment by promoting bamboo products as alternatives to plastic. Together they have developed a whole range of products — from the very popular bamboo toothbrush to earbuds, razors, straws, travel kits, pens, and acoustic speakers. Over the last two years, the Shindes have managed to service 1,600 pin codes in India and 18 countries across the world. “Initially it was difficult to sell 50 units of a product a week, now we sell a bamboo alternative every 15 minutes,” says Yogesh.

This just goes to show that slowly but surely more and more of us are taking responsibility and making informed choices to reduce our dependency on plastics. And if we keep going this way, it does seem possible that the pledge made by India, on World Environment Day this year, to eliminate all single-use plastics in the country by 2022, will certainly be a reality. But first things first — do practise the 4R’s of plastic waste management — Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle. And most importantly, don’t forget to segregate garbage before disposal!

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