Being a student of chemical engineering, a job in the petrochemicals industry is considered amongst the most lucrative offers for an undergraduate student. When a global petrochemicals giant visited our campus for recruitments last semester, a large number of students sat for placement and internship interviews.
But during the company introduction, only one girl from the audience had the courage to ask what the company was doing to combat climate change, as this found no mention in their presentation. As expected, the company deflected from giving a concrete answer. At the time, I had found the question to be misplaced but realised its significance only much later.
The impact of climate change is something we might have studied and mastered as part of an elementary school Social Studies course. But, like most of what we have studied, we fail to apply these principles in guiding our choices as conscious citizens. One of the major by-products of the petrochemicals industry is plastic. From the polystyrene in our tableware to the polypropylene in our drinking straws and the polycarbonate in our uber-cool phone covers, we are all patrons of the plastic industry in some way or the other.
According to a report by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, nearly 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste is generated every day in India. On an average, only 9,000 tonnes gets collected and processed for recycling. Plastic that is not disposed off appropriately, find its way into the feed of unsuspecting animals and ocean species, even clogging our drainage systems and reducing the richness of our soils. As for recycling itself, you may believe it is an effective solution to the current crisis.
However, the energy and financial resources required to transport and recycle certain types of plastics are much larger than their production costs, making it a highly unsustainable solution. The only solution is to develop alternatives to the plastics that we use. Luckily, entrepreneurs and innovators in India are already devising solutions.
Ashwath Hegde, an NRI entrepreneur from Qatar, has devised a plastic bag made from natural products such as tapioca starch granules, vegetable oil and waste. His company, EnviGreen is all set to launch the product in Bengaluru this year, with products ranging from biodegradable trash bags and sachets to wrapping film and carry bags. According to Ashwath, the average cost of an EnviGreen shopping bag is ₹3, and he is hoping to revolutionise the packaging industry, with his offering in the future.
Using plastic sachets is a norm in the FMCG industry. However, three students R. Praneeth Srivanth, B. Shantini and Abhishek Vinakollu from IIT Madras’ chemical engineering department devised an eco-friendly alternative to package edible and non-edible products, as part of an innovation competition conducted by FMCG giant Hindustan Lever. The students developed a novel packaging material from cellophane, which is regenerated cellulose and is completely biodegradable. The corporate giant has now shown an interest in incorporating this innovation into its product packaging.
Plastic is composed of chemicals that are toxic and potentially carcinogenic. When plastic cutlery is used for food, there is a possibility of these chemicals leaching leaking into the consumables and contaminating it. Narayana Peesapati and his venture Bakey’s is trying to address this issue by manufacturing edible cutlery from a mix of jowar, rice and wheat flour. The idea apparently struck him when he saw a Gujarati gentleman use a piece of khakra as a spoon to eat dessert. Bakey’s offers savoury, sweet and plain spoons that can be eaten, or left to decompose, post use.
Post a campaign by the plastics industry in the early 19th century to discredit hemp by linking it to marijuana (both come from the cannabis plant), the material is now actively making a comeback, the world over. In India, BOHECO, set up by a group of young entrepreneurs is making and marketing hemp products, from snacks and clothes to raw material for industries like construction and biotechnology. Hemp is known to be three times as strong as cotton, biodegradable and very durable.
From banana fibre to bamboo, young entrepreneurs are experimenting to remove our dependence on this synthetic menace. For instance, Shunya Alternatives make toothbrushes, cutlery and straws (reusable) from bamboo, while Saathi is making biodegradable, highly absorbent sanitary napkins from the banana plant.
While innovators reverse the use of plastic to traditional and new-age materials, there’s a need to systematically change mindsets of consumers to support alternatives to plastic and plastic products. When you are able to rationalise your choices, it becomes easier to follow them and make more conscious decisions in the future.
As for me, the next time a petrochemical giant comes knocking at my door, I will not take up an offer without understanding the repercussions of the business on the environment. Climate change is amongst the biggest challenges that we will have to face collectively in the future, and hopefully, we can innovate our way through it.
Simultaneously, of course, we need to acknowledge that the plastic industry in India employs about four million people, of which the majority are involved in medium and small enterprises. With the sheer size of the number of individuals employed in the plastic industry, any solution that we arrive at must also focus on transitioning these individuals to more eco-friendly industries.
Jatin Nayak is an intern with Youth Ki Awaaz for the February-March 2017 batch.