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These Alternatives To Plastic By Indian Innovators Can Revolutionise The World

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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.

Why We Need Alternatives To Plastic

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.

Recycling Vegetable Waste

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.

Sachets Made Of Regenerated Cellulose

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.

Edible Cutlery

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.

Resurgence Of Hemp

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.

Biodegradable Products

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.

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  1. Local Trends4u

    Good Information. Very interesting article.
    https://youtu.be/jU9WDC4F8qg

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

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Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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