Q&A with Mr. Kurian Mathew, India CEO of Germany’s BIO-LUTIONS, explains their breakthrough ‘plastic-alternative’ products

Q. What was the basic objective you wanted to address through your venture?

A. It addresses twin environmental objectives related to plastic waste and agricultural excess.

One – A result of India’s consumer-demand driven economic growth has been that the country is today one of the largest consumers of plastic globally. Most of these plastics are used in the packaging industry. India’s annual consumption of plastic currently is 14.8 million tons, and it is estimated to rise to 20 million tons by 2020. The problem is that most of this plastic is not being recycled properly. Most of us are becoming aware of the impact the continual dumping of plastic waste is having on our land, air and water. A recent study found that out of the 10 rivers that drain more than 90% of the world’s plastic debris into the oceans, three flow through India. Affordable and sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging and disposable tableware are imperative if we are to preserve our natural capital for future generations.

Second – farmers in rural India face a dilemma of how to effectively dispose their agricultural excess each time they harvest their crops. Until today, these natural materials have no economic value for them and composting is not generally practiced. As a result, it is currently considered more of a waste than a resource. Unfortunately, it either gets dumped on the roadside as garbage, or is burnt which generates thick smog. A major factor contributing to Delhi’s infamous air pollution in the fall and winter is stubble burning in the agricultural fields.

Q. How does your business model work?

A. The two points about plastic waste and agriculture excess may seem unrelated at first, but Germany’s BIO-LUTIONS has found a solution for both, following significant path-breaking research. The first manufacturing unit of the company was actually set up in Karnataka, India in 2017. This facility is expected to start operations in August 2018.

In simple terms, we take agricultural residue and convert it mechanically without any chemicals into self-binding fibres. These fibres are used to manufacture packaging materials and disposable tableware as a sustainable and affordable substitute for plastic and paper packaging. Basically, the raw materials will be dehydrated to break it up into nanoparticles that can then be rehydrated and converted into food-grade packaging products. It can be used for packaging fruits, vegetables, pasta, etc., in supermarkets. Our products/containers are made of agro-residue like sugarcane leaves, banana stems, husks, tomato plants, etc. The absence of any chemical processes is in contrast to most “eco-friendly” products manufactured globally as they use chemical processes such as binding agents, bleaching and softening. For colour, we use natural products like turmeric and other food grade colours unlike the dyes used in plastic packaging products. We are dedicated to sourcing all our raw materials locally, which helps us reduce our carbon footprint.

Q. Tell us about the advantages of your product?

A. More than recycling, this is a process of upcycling. One more economic life is being made use of from the agro-excess. Our BIO-LUTIONS packaging products can replace Styrofoam and plastic which have already been banned in several states of India, as well as chemically treated paper or cardboard. It is sold through two online markets in India for packing fruits, vegetables, meat, etc. BIO-LUTIONS products are biodegradable. They take about three months to biodegrade – just like a heap of leaves left in the open – and can then be recycled. They could even be burnt with near-zero carbon footprint. Most importantly, the products are priced almost similar to the A-rated (food grade virgin) plastic ware. Hence, users can buy sustainable packaging without any extra cost. In effect, that would not only help people to make the decision to switch, but would also disincentivize the black market when plastic packaging products are banned everywhere.

Q. Tell us a bit about the new facility in India?

A. BIO-LUTIONS has set up its pilot plant in Ramanagara, about 40 km from Bangalore. The factory is due to start operations in the next few weeks. In terms of capacity, it would produce up to 1,500 to 2,000 tons finished products per year, using materials such as tomato plants, sugarcane leaves and bagasse, banana and pineapple leaves, wheat and rice straw, and waste from areca leaf plate factories. To reduce transportation costs, these materials will be sourced from the surrounding agricultural district of Mandya. To procure the agro-residue, we will pay the farmers almost equivalent to the price of the crops in order to create strong incentives not to burn their organic material but rather collect it and sell it. We have also connected with NGOs and farmer bodies to sort out the residue and educate the farmers not to burn it.

Q. Has your technology won recognition?

A. Our technology and products have won international awards, including the German Packaging Award in Gold, German Packaging Award in Sustainability 2017, Bio-Based Material Of The Year 2017 and The World Packaging Organisation’s World Star Award. The company was also selected as one of the Top-3 finalists at the Greentech Awards, 2018 and was named one of the Top hundred start-ups by ELEVATE 100 BENGALURU in 2017.

Q. Lastly, tell us about your future plans?

A. Apart from the facility in India, we also plan to set up similar manufacturing facilities world-wide to ensure decentralised global production. In the near future BIO-LUTIONS wants to expand in India, as well as open factories in Germany and Thailand. Exports will also be done from all these plants to the neighbouring geographies.

We are also in the process of developing cutlery products, and are experimenting with making hospital disposables and bottles from this process.

Image Courtesy: www.bio-lutions.com

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