Environment

Regeno Ventures’ products offer an alternative to plastics

The bags are made from processed tapioca starch and are completely biodegradable

The bags are made from processed tapioca starch and are completely biodegradable   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Bags of sense: Why aren’t more people ditching plastic for the biodegradable alternative made of vegetable starch?

Did you know that there is a water-soluble, non-toxic, biodegradable alternative to plastic? Not cloth or paper but tapioca starch. Cibhi SelVen, co-founder and MD of Coimbatore-based Regeno Ventures, which manufactures these bags, says “it’s possible with corn, wheat and potato starch as well but they are not water soluble.” Regeno’s rather bare office at Chinniyampalayam is livened up by a colourful display of pink, red, orange, blue, yellow and green bags with logos of companies like LKS Gold House, Grasp, Sri Venkateswara Supermarket, Ramraj Cottons, Hot Chips among others.

Cibhi SelVen decided that he wanted to work on something sustainable when he returned to India

Cibhi SelVen decided that he wanted to work on something sustainable when he returned to India   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Edible wrap
  • Cibhi shows me a film from seaweed that can be used to wrap burgers. “You can eat the wrapping also. Flavours can be added,” he smiles. “It’s been tested in labs but is not yet in production. It’ll take a few more years before it hits the market.”

Cibhi admits that the bags are pricier than plastic, “around 70-80% more,” he says, “but cheaper than paper and cloth.” So, though he gets many enquiries, they do not always convert into orders. “India is a very cost-conscious and price-sensitive market,” says Cibhi ruefully. “They don’t care about brands or looks; only about the money.” For the cost to reduce, Cibhi says there has to be an increase in orders and increasing efficiency and scaling up of production. “Orders are coming in but not enough for us to expand as much as we want.” Also where a plastic bag manufacturer can produce 10 kg, he can do only 7-8 kg with the same amount of raw material. “Our material needs a bit more attention. The sealing also takes more time.” The sample bags he displays feel thinner but that doesn’t affect its strength, he assures. “We can adjust the thickness based on the use. So it’s one kind for food takeaways and another for supermarkets.”

Cibhi, who worked in the US as an accounts manager in an auto parts manufacturing company, returned to India in 2017. “I wanted to do something sustainable and, given the plastics problem , this seemed like a good venture.” It took a year to lay the groundwork — “to source raw material, ensure production capacity, check government regulations and get the bags tested by the Central Pollution Control Board” — and “to make sure that people would actually buy it,” he grins.

The processed tapioca starch looks like little pellets or granules

The processed tapioca starch looks like little pellets or granules   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cibhi shows off the little pellets of tapioca starch sitting on his desk. These are converted into a translucent sheet — a huge roll is displayed — which is cut to the required size. Cibhi currently imports all his raw materials — the starch, the colours and printing inks — from countries like Thailand, Vietnam, and Japan. “Despite shipping costs and import duties, it’s more cost effective,” he says, adding that he’s working out a shift to local sources shortly. “This is industrial-grade starch and is modified. That methodology is not widely available in India. Also the colours and inks have to be certified as non-toxic. I don’t get that here.” He has a limited range of nine to 10 water-based organic pigments for those who want coloured bags.

While his products are shipped across India, Cibhi is trying to get companies to sponsor these bags for those who cannot afford them; “like pushcart vendors, flower sellers and the like. We can print the sponsoring company’s advertisement on the bags and distribute them.” The plan is ready but he hasn’t yet found takers.

Cibhi believes our dependence on plastics will reduce only if we replace that in primary packaging

Cibhi believes our dependence on plastics will reduce only if we replace that in primary packaging   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The bags are
  • Water soluble and biodegradable: Depends on where they are being disposed, says Cibhi. “In a place with microbial activity, it will decompose faster. It will dissolve instantly in hot water and takes some time in regular water. It won’t dissolve in rain but will soften slightly. When burnt, it will become ash and not emit toxic fumes.
  • Non-toxic: If consumed accidentally by animals, it is not hazardous to health. “I won’t say they are edible,” he smiles, “but it won’t harm them.”
  • Strong: It’s as strong as a plastic bag of the same size but the weight it can carry varies slightly. “If a plastic bag carries 5kg, this will take 4.5 to 4.75kg.”

Cibhi feels the shift from plastics will happen only when other materials are used for primary packaging. “Only single-use plastics are banned,” he points out. “We are still using other kinds.” For food containers, Cibhi says 100% plastic-free non-toxic replacements are available and shows a small box for sauces, pickles and mayo. “These need to be segregated at source; they are not water soluble and biodegradable only in a composting facility.” So it will add to the litter, though it won’t last as long as plastic. “The solution is available but we need other amenities to implement this.” Like composting services. “We have one government-run facility in Chennai for the whole of Tamil Nadu. And who is going to collect and transport these to the composting centre?”

Which brings us to the issue of waste segregation. “These products cannot be mixed with plastic,” emphasises Cibhi. “The composting facilities are not visible. Do we even have them? We need more such centres and more awareness. We need to know where our waste is going.”

Finally I ask Cibhi how long he thinks it will take for people to ditch plastic. “Eight to 10 years,” he says, but his tone is more a question than an answer.

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 7:37:25 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/sci-tech/energy-and-environment/cibhi-selven-of-regeno-ventures-talks-about-the-alternatives-to-plastic-bags/article30086877.ece

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