21 May 2018 --- German start-up company, Bio-lutions, are taking great strides to combat India’s huge air pollution and plastic waste problems through the conversion of agriculture waste into biodegradable packaging. Starting as a pilot-plant in Bangalore, the company has big ambitions to expand operations across India and ultimately the wider world.
“Our packaging is as good as a leaf falling on the ground,” Kurian Mathew, Managing Director of Bio-lutions tells FoodIngredientsFirst. “It is helping the earth, giving nutrition to the plants – all we are doing is giving it one more life.”
The production process involves buying agricultural residue from farmers which would otherwise have been burnt and converting it into self-binding fibers using a mechanical process, ultimately creating hard shell containers which provide a viable alternative to plastics.
It is not just the end-product that demonstrates environmental friendliness – because the production is mechanical, no harmful chemicals are used. Likewise, Bio-lutions have strategically located themselves where carbon emissions can be minimized throughout the supply chain: “We consume the fibers that are local to us and supply locally,” says Mathew, “which again allows us to cut down on our carbon footprint and help the farmers in that area.”
The fact that Bio-lutions, “buy the raw materials, we don’t get them for free,” is vitally important to the economic sustainability of the process. As Jessica McCarty of Miami University highlights, “farmers don’t know of other options to stubble-burning, and if they do, they also need to be cheap or subsidized for them to switch their management practices.”
Click to EnlargeThe biodegradable packaging is currently used across a wide range of product categories, including single-use disposable tableware items such as plates and cups, takeaway boxes, fresh fruit and vegetables and meat.
“We haven’t gone out to sell the product – people have approached us because what we produce is highly eco-friendly and sustainable, and not expensive,” adds Mathew. “Our packaging is food grade quality and cheaper than sugarcane packaging and pulp.”
Bio-lutions have reported that they have already received enough orders to generate an annual turnover of €2.5 million. To facilitate demand, the company will be relocating to a new, larger factory in Mandya, an agricultural district close to Bangalore. The new factory will employ around 60 people.
“Crop burning is a huge issue, especially in north India after the harvest when the rice fields are burnt. For the farmer, it is easiest to clear his farm and start sowing again. Delhi is one of the places that gets affected by the smog as winds blow in that direction,” explains Mathew.
“Plastic pollution is a big problem because of the huge population of India and everyone uses some sort of plastic every day. The infrastructure to recycle plastic is almost non-existent.”
A recent study found that three of the ten rivers that drain more than 90 percent of the world’s plastic waste into the ocean run through India. Likewise, the Government of India reports that the country generates around 15,000 tons of plastic every day and only 9,000 tons are recycled. They also report that 90 percent of Delhi’s pollution during the fall and winter months are a consequence of stubble-burning on farms.
“We want to produce around 1,800-2,000 tons of biodegradable packaging per year, which is nothing compared to the requirements of the country,” says Mathew “so we intend to set-up multiple plants across the country in specific regions where certain types of agricultural residue are available.”
The company also has ambitions to transfer their business model to other regions of the world, including China, Thailand and Hong Kong, where offices have already been set-up. “Our first production plant ever in the world is right now in Bangalore, but we are setting up for the future in Germany, Columbia, Canada, China, and Thailand to create a truly global operation.”
Click to EnlargeA common concern with biodegradable packaging is the extent to which it may decrease shelf-life. Mathew conceded that Bio-lutions’ packaging is less durable and “cannot be compared to plastics which survives for decades because biodegradable is a natural product and it has its certain shelf life – depending on the moisture levels and temperature, it could start biodegrading. But what we promote,” adds Mathew, “is our capabilities as a single-use product and our advantages over plastic with regards to eco-friendliness and sustainability.”
Mathew did stress that they have tested their meat packaged products for a week without any real negative effects regarding shelf life. “People don’t typically keep meat that long – you buy it from an online supermarket and it’s in your fridge or freezer for a maximum of seven days. Our packaging can also be put into your wet waste, unlike other packaging material.”
Bio-lutions are demonstrating that environmental issues can be transformed into economic opportunities in the form of a localized and sustainable circular economy if the entire supply chain is incentivized. Bio-lutions prioritizes working with local partners, but it is a business model which is applicable globally, as the company’s international expansion would indicate.
By Joshua Poole
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