A German company called Bio-lutions is offering an alternative to single-use plastic and other destructive forms of packaging with a material made from agricultural waste. The eco-friendly food containers are made from the discarded mulberry leaves produced on at silk farms—and it was at the suggestion of the farmers. City Lab reports that co-founder Kurian Mathew got a call from a farmer near Bangalore who offered him the material that would otherwise go in the garbage.
“Every month, tons of mulberry leaves are left over from our pruned plants,” he said. “Would you like to use them at your factory?”
Soon they received sacks full of the dead leaves.
Mulberry leaves aren't the only material Bio-lutions is used to working with, but they do focus on biodegradable agricultural waste. The leaves were shredded, then left out to dry outside of the company's small factory. After that they were cleaned and put through Bio-lutions patented machinery, which turns them into fibers that are pulverized into a pulp with a centrifuge. The pulp is put into a press that forms it into sheets, in various shapes that hold fruits and vegetables.
The company also uses leftovers from wheat, rice straw, sugarcane leaves, banana stems, pineapple leaves, and tomato plant crops. The whole process uses very little energy, requires no added chemicals for breakdown, and requires between 3.7 and 5.3 quarts of water for every 2 pounds of material. And the final product is easily composted.
“Our products are like leaves: They biodegrade in three months,” Mathew said. “We’re just giving another life to agricultural residue by converting it into something usable.”
It's significant to Bio-lutions founders that their factory can function in India; a study from 2017 stated that there are ten main rivers that push plastic waste into the ocean, and three of them run through the country. There is also an issue with air quality from farmers burning crop leftovers exactly like what is being processed in Bio-lutions assembly line. The "stubble-burning" clears fields for the next crop, though it could potentially be used for other things, like animal feed, or tilled back into the soil.
Stubble-burning is less demanding from a labor perspective. Bio-lutions is incentivizing farmers to change their habits by paying for the agricultural waste. The company is hoping to move even closer to farmland with a new factory in an agricultural district called Mandya. This would reduce the cost of transporting the waste and also reduce the carbon footprint of that transport.
Right now, the Bio-Lutkions packaging is slightly more expensive than plastic, but it's still finding a market, mostly in online grocery stores. According to Mathew, their new factory will employ 60 people and they estimate they can make as much as €2.5 million based on the orders they already have for the year. They're also looking at expansion.
“We need to set up at least 10 factories in just one agricultural district of Punjab to consume all their residue,” Mathews said.
There are a number of innovative packaging experiments happening now, as companies seek a way to reduce their dependency on plastic. Bio-lutions is a great example of how these solutions can potentially fit into the regional patterns of a place without significantly disrupting it—except in a good way.