Disposable cutlery and containers are products that are a part of our day to day life. As a result of the ever-increasing number of food vendors in Colombo and the suburbs, plastic cups, plates and cutlery that are hardly used are seen tossed into bins regularly.
Dinnerware made from areca sheath
However there is a ban in place connected to disposable items. This means that the ordinary vendor and consumer must both take responsibility, a task that some are less inclined to embrace. A small group of entrepreneurs up North however are already taking action and demonstrating how to take responsibility by providing green solutions to the community. While many lament the inconvenience, this group isn’t only making good use of organic material, but also helping the environment, one plate at a time.
In Thirumurikandy, off the A9 highway, several kilometres before the Iranamadu junction,in Kilinochchi, an elderly gentleman opens the gates of a small enclosure to greet us. A small house sits in the middle of an expansive land with blossoming rows of tender coconut trees planted in between. Areca sheaths hang from ropes tied between trees, drying out in the sun. As we enter the house several young women appear with welcoming smiles. No sooner than we can say hello, the young ladies spring into action, showing us what they are capable of with their new and exciting venture.
“The initiative was launched by our company this year in an effort to promote and embrace a greener lifestyle,” Gowri Ananthan of Kudhil products, facilitating this cottage industry said. “Our operational, research and development and training unit is situated in Ariviyal Nagar, Killinochi which is mainly focusing on providing job opportunities to war affected communities,” she said. The entrepreneurs hope to export the final products to US and Canada as well.
Manufacturing plates with areca sheath
“Apart from this, our company is engaged in importing and supplying machinery to extract banana fibre and to make plates and cups out of areca sheath. We also import and install coir pot making machinery, natural fibre weaving machinery and paper bag making machinery,” Gowri elaborated.
Brand new machines imported from India are installed in the verandah. Small piles of banana tree trunks and areca sheaths sit in the garden closer to the house. It takes a village to make organic disposable plates, we learn. Villagers collect locally grown areca sheaths and the native palmyrah sheaths which they use in the production of disposable dinnerware. Traditionally, areca leaves have been used to pack cooked rice and to preserve treacle made of “Fish Tail Palm”. Matured stems are used as a building material as well as for decoration of religious events. But in Kilinochchi, the ladies are quite busy collecting sheaths for a better cause. In addition to this, they also use the banana stem, purchased from villagers.
Once plantains are harvested the banana tree is disposed of, as it bears fruit only once. The stem of the banana plant has long been considered to be high in nutrition value, even though it is disposed of in most banana plantations. As a solution to the increasing issue of processing stem waste, entrepreneurs in South India began manufacturing bio-degradable dinnerware from organic waste such as the banana stem. Extracting good quality fibre from these stems is now a popular business enterprise especially with an increased need for reusable and environment friendly alternatives in Asia.
Purses made from banana fibre
Our operational, research and development and training unit is situated in Ariviyal Nagar, Killinochi which is mainly focusing on providing job opportunities to war affected communities
The manufacturing of plates involves a process of die cutting. A die is a specialized tool used in manufacturing industries to cut or shape material mostly using a press. Like moulds, dies are generally customized to the item they are used to create. The cutting process using a die is however a simple one. The upper die presses into the lower die assembly, with the dried sheath or leaf placed in between. The machine is operated by pressing a foot pedal. The heat regulator is set to maintain the main die temperature at about 150 Degrees Celsius. The die is heated by domestic energy which makes it ideal for a manufacturing set up in rural areas.
After a few seconds, the foot on the pedal is withdrawn and a cured leaf plate is produced. Finishing of the product is done by just trimming the edges of the manufactured plate. One of the most noteworthy attributes of this process we noted is that the manufacturing required no adhesive or chemical, making it completely safe for consumers. It’s a reliable, biodegradable and compostable alternative to petrochemical based plastic and polystyrene plates.
The plate machine
Still in its experimental and training phase, the employees are enthusiastically testing the possibility of making plates from lotus leaf as well. The revolutionary product is strong like its plastic rival and doen’t leak. But as we observed, the art of perfecting the skills of plate making is no easy task and requires efficiency of movement.
Still in its experimental and training phase, the employees are enthusiastically testing the possibility of making plates from lotus leaf as well
As the sheath is placed on the machine, it cuts and presses a portion of the leaf into a plate. The challenge for the operator is to try and save as much sheath left over as possible for the next plate. They also require the skill to know the precise moment when to lift the heated mold; when the plate is cured, but not burnt.
Meanwhile at another corner of the house, sat a young lady at a machine extracting fibre from banana sheaths. The extracted fibre after being dried are then woven into fabrics of beautiful shades. Another sat at a sewing machine, stitching together various pieces of woven mat and fabric. The final products they showed us included bags, purses and even pouches for phones. Successive Sri Lankan governments have always favoured bans, regardless of how prepared the country is to effectively implement it. The polythene and plastic ban which comes into effect from September 1, prevents the use of polythene lunch sheets, rigifoam boxes and shopping bags. While many are praising the move, another group are lamenting the inconvenience it will cause. The women and men of Kilinochchi taking up the challenge of providing a greener alternative, are indeed exemplary.