New Delhi: The adverse effects of consuming plastics run deep than we can imagine. Consumption of common food and beverages may result in weekly ingestion of 2000 tiny pieces of plastic that is five grams of plastic which is equivalent to eating a credit card, states a recent study commissioned by the environmental charity WWF (World Wide Fund) International and conducted by University of Newcastle, Australia. Food served in plastic gets contaminated as toxic chemicals present in plastic are carcinogenic. From entering the human body to polluting our landfills, rivers, oceans, and taking away marine life, the plastic menace has crossed every boundary.
Having faced the wrath of plastic and understood the importance of disease prevention at an early age, in 2009 Rhea Mazumdar Singhal introduced India’s first and largest sustainable packaging company Ecoware. With Ecoware Rhea is trying to free India from plastic by providing 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable alternatives to single-use plastic.
The Birth Of An Idea
I was 19 years old when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, not once but twice and that is something I hold very close to my heart. It is then I decided to study pharmacology and understand medicine. Later, I ended up working in the oncology team of Pfizer UK and understood the lifestyle changes that one needs to make, recalls Rhea, while speaking to NDTV.
In 2009 when 27-year-old Rhea left her cushy job in UK and moved to Delhi, she got a setback seeing the omnipresence of plastic and lack of responsible living. Since she grew up between Dubai and London, she was used to segregating waste at home, not use plastic, and lead a responsible life. But Delhi had something else in store for her.
The another thing that irked me was, people here were talking about healthy eating, discussing diet and healthy meals, but no one was really paying attention to what they were eating out of. Almost every food joint was serving food in single-use plastic and styrofoam tableware and cutlery. I believe a healthy meal is negated once served in toxic plastic, says Rhea.
Taken aback by the lifestyle of people, in regard to using plastic and waste management, Rhea decided to start a battle against plastic pollution by introducing something which was easy to dispose of and non-toxic to eat out of.
Making Of 100 Per Cent Biodegradable And Compostable Products By Ecoware
The 100 per cent biodegradable and compostable tableware and cutlery are made using plant biomass which is agriculture waste that is left over once crops such as wheat, rice, and sugarcane are processed. The agriculture waste collected from farmers is converted to tableware without any additives and binders. Since it is made of natural material, it is compostable which simply means put it into the soil and it will turn into the soil within 90 days. Also, it is a USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) certified bio based product.
Apart from boasting environmental benefits, Ecoware products are user-friendly. They can sustain a temperature range of minus 20 to 180 degrees which implies they can be used in the refrigerator, freezer, microwave and oven.
The best thing about our sustainable products is it does not change the taste and nutritional value of the food. What is put into it, goes to your mouth in the same way, says Rhea.
The environmental impact of the products is backed up by social and environmental impact assessment done by Shujog, a Singapore based not-for-profit organisation. Ecoware products will prevent 621 tonnes of plastic annually from reaching India’s dying landfills and rivers, along with this, 2800 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions offset annually. The manufacturing of the product utilises 78 per cent less water than paper, 93 per cent than thermocol based products and saves 7,264 trees. Once discarded, the waste product improves soil quality by releasing micro-nutrients.
Initially, Ecoware manufactured only bowls and plates, but today it hosts a wide variety of 26 compostable tableware, cutlery, takeaway packaging and garbage bags, all priced between Rs. 1 to Rs. 25 per piece. All the products are available in a pack of 20.
Ecoware’s Journey Over A Decade
In May 2009 Rhea hit the ball rolling by launching her company Ecoware. The first six months went into extensive R&D (research and development), because the team wanted to ensure that their products are not only eco-friendly but suitable for every cuisine. Concurrently, a significant amount of time and effort was invested in educating businesses, retailers and consumers about the harmful effects of plastic, both on health and the environment.
Ecoware was launched before plastic bans became a more common occurrence, which means numerous challenges tagged along. Talking about the same, Rhea, founder and CEO of Ecoware says,
When I founded Ecoware, the food packaging market in India was a commodity market dominated by generational manufacturers and traders, who were mostly men. The price of disposables was fixed per unit weight and the seller never cared for the end-of-life value of the product. Other than the challenges of setting up a consumer business, I had to overcome the stigma and bias associated with being a female business owner in India. Having spent most of my life abroad I was practically a foreigner and spoke very little Hindi, the business language of north India.
Despite this, Rhea managed to upturn all the obstacles and convinced generational traders in large wholesale markets to sell a product they had never seen before and that cannibalised their current revenue. The results of the efforts were soon apparent with the company grabbing five clients in the initial year itself.
The following year Ecoware added a feather in its cap with Commonwealth Games as one of its prestigious clients. In 2010 when Commonwealth Games were held in Delhi, a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to show the intention to host ‘sustainable games’. In 2010, the games were called ‘green games’. Tableware and cutlery used during te green games was provided by Ecoware.
The company has successfully grown from five customers in 2009 to over 500 in 500 in 2019. Today, Ecoware has 27 distributors in 22 states across India and products are demanded from Jammu and Kashmir to Kerala.
We now produce over 40 million pieces of 100 per cent compostable tableware pieces each year. We work with various customer groups – QSRs (quick service restaurants), offices, schools, cinema chains. However, the most recent success has been to partner with the Indian Railways, the largest food service operator in India”, says Rhea.
How Ecoware Is Changing The Market Despite Adoption Of Eco-friendly Tableware Being A Challenge
Disposable food ware is mainly made up of polystyrene which is non-biodegradable and takes hundreds of years to deteriorate. Hence it clogs sewerage, litters all around and eats up landfill space, also causing marine pollution. Not surprisingly globally there are bans against such single-use plastics. India has also declared to be single-use plastic-free by 2022. In such a scenario, using sustainable alternatives made from sugarcane bagasse, areca and palm leaf, bamboo, banana leaves, as well as using stainless steel and glass utensils makes a whole lot of sense, says Chitra Mukherjee, Head, Advocacy and Policy, Chintan.
But eco-friendly products are still a bit expensive for this, Rhea believes biomass pulp molded products such as Ecoware should not attract GST (goods and services tax). Removal of GST will bring down the cost of a product and accentuate its acceptance among individuals.
Behavioral economics has taught us that the greatest incentive for a person to change his actions is monetary. Further long-term fiscal incentives should be extended to manufacturers such as us, who are using local resources to make this product in India, says Rhea.
Even though Ecoware products are considered ‘premium’ when compared to plastic and styrofoam based products, it has garnered many loyal customers over the years, because they have understood the negative role plastics play in our life.
Talking about how cost affects an individual’s decision of switching to eco-friendly alternatives, Bonney Kochar from Colonel’s Kababz, a food joint, says,
Two years back I met Rhea, a pioneer, in one of the exhibitions and decided to make a green switch. Of course, the products are pricey but the quality is one of the bests we have got and I believe it is a small price to pay considering the plastic menace. Our consumers don’t appreciate the use of plastic anymore. Today people have become very conscious and are ready to pay an extra price to save the environment. Also, thermocol plates are very wobbly, when you put food on one side, other side lifts up so in comparison to that Ecoware’s products are far better.
Sharing his experience of switching to compostable tableware, Bicky Dhingra, founder of Delhi Langar Seva Society, says,
We run feeding programmes outside hospitals in Delhi and for the same we would use thermocol plates and bowls. One of the sewadar (servicemen) knew Rhea very well and introduced me to her. When I met Rhea, I was overjoyed by the kind of work she was doing and instantly realised that there was no point feeding people via langar and polluting mother Earth by using plastic. It is then we decided to switch to compostable products. So far we have never faced any issue like leakages. Products are durable and hold food for a long time.
How Rhea Plans To Pursue Her Vision Of Plastic Free India
Rhea who was awarded the Nari Shakti Puraskar, the highest civilian award for recognising the achievements and contributions of women, by the President of India this year, and was recognised by the World Economic Forum for creating an impact through Ecoware is now focusing on scaling up her business globally.
I want farmers to earn more by turning their waste into a consumer product instead of burning it or using it as animal fodder. As more and more countries are currently debating the food vs. fuel dilemma, our business model successfully addresses this issue, says Rhea, who is also an active member of the CII (Confederation of Indian Industry) panels for Women Empowerment and Clean Air.
Rhea wishes to achieve her vision of plastic free India by raising public awareness, educating people, and offering an affordable alternative to consumers. Rhea signs off by saying,
We all know we live in a resource constrained world, and we are all negatively impacted by pollution and climate change. I wish for all of us to collaborate and create a safe, sustainable world and this can be achieved when we realise that this is our collective problem. Each one of us must start reducing our waste footprint, move from rampant consumerism to conscious consumerism. We must engage with our communities to educate, build social awareness, and implement innovative solutions.
NDTV – Dettol Banega Swachh India campaign lends support to the Government of India’s Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM). Helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan, the campaign aims to spread awareness about hygiene and sanitation, the importance of building toilets and making India open defecation free (ODF) by October 2019, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, when he launched Swachh Bharat Abhiyan in 2014. Over the years, the campaign has widened its scope to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and menstrual hygiene. The campaign has also focused extensively on marine pollution, clean Ganga Project and rejuvenation of Yamuna, two of India’s major river bodies.