It is much more expensive to invest in compostable products than plastic ones. However, this new business makes sense.
Paper straws. Check. Ceramic mugs. Check. Palm leaf-based cutlery. Check. This sounds like a checklist for a modern business in 2019, and it probably is. These items are becoming more and more sought after as consumers and businesses increasingly seek out alternative materials to plastics. In fact, businesses are turning to natural materials that have been used in some countries for centuries to help find solutions to the plastic pollution problem.
UK-based Leafoware is one company that is using palm leaves to make cutlery. Here, Liz Gyekye, senior content manager at Bio-Based World News catches up with Rupin Rughani, CEO of Leafoware.
Liz Gyekye (LG): Welcome to 5 Minutes With. Can you begin with a description about Leafoware (@leafoware) and what it is the company does?
Rupin Rughani (RR): I have been running a furniture business that specialises in furniture made from reclaimed wood, metal, aluminium etc. for the past four to five years, whilst still working in my day job at SAIPAC/Sphere selling compostable starch based bags and liners to the waste management sector both public sector (local authorities) and private sector (retail and F&B sector). In fact, I have just recently quit my employment to runLeafoware full time. Due to my passion and association with the sustainability and food waste sector for more than 12 years, I thought that we should diversify and add new products to our business. Consequently, we started Leafoware last autumn.
LG: Before working at Leafoware, what did you do?
RR: I first trained as a mechanical engineer in India and after doing this I then worked in the plastics industry for around ten years. In 2004/5, I came to the UK. During this time, I studied for a masters in polymer science at London Metropolitan University.
After completing my masters, I then started to work for an Anglo-French polymer company called the SAIPAC – Sphere Group. Bio-based polymers were not being widely talked about during this time around 2006-08.
I have experience in working in the organic/food waste industry and I have been involved in the successful roll out of compostable bags for food waste collections at well-known coffee shops, snack shops, pubs and hotels. As well as working with local authorities across the length and breadth of the country, I have seen the waste that some of these flimsy disposable plastic products can create, especially through cutlery, straws and plates. This is when I thought to myself lets give this new business a try.
LG: Whats been the biggest challenge for the company?
RR: Cost is the biggest challenge. Green materials are four to six times more expensive than conventional plastic products. For example, a pack of conventional plastic plates could cost around 2-3 and a pack of compostable palm leaf plates will cost around 9. Todays culture is such that we use three traditional plates when we should only be using one. Having said that, the quality of the disposable plates is so poor that you have to double them up anyway.
It is much more expensive to invest in compostable products than plastic ones. However, this new business makes sense. These products are 100% compostable. It can go inside your garden waste, food waste and your garden composter.
We import the products from India. There is abundance of areca palm trees all over the massive southern coast of India. These trees shed their leaves & sheath every seven weeks. Subsequently, these leaves are collected, steam cleaned, moulded and finished into the final product. It is then packed and dispatched to customers worldwide. This is done on a cooperative basis. A lot of agricultural workers rely on seasonal work, and when this work slows down a gap needs to be filled. The work that comes from this work supports the local community and also ensures that these swathes of naturally growing Areca Palm trees are not cut.
Elsewhere, you find that positive engagement with residents who use compostable bags always goes up when local authorities give out compostable bags to their residents to use for their food waste. Yet, in the UK different councils do different things. It confuses people even more.
There is also an infrastructure problem in the UK. There needs to be combination of in-vessel composting facilities alongside AD facilities. There is currently more investment and focus on anaerobic digestion (AD) capacities in the UK. But the trick is to have in-vessel composting systems alongside AD plants so that all the bio-polymers that are de-packaged at the gates of AD plants dont end up in landfill. You will be surprised to know that compostable starch based bags & liners, PLA based packaging items such as glasses, cups, trays, cutlery, among other things, cannot be composted. These items will then end up being sent to landfill.
Separately, there is also the challenge of bioeconomy terminology. Biodegradable is not necessarily compostable, but compostable is biodegradable.
LG: What is coming up next for your company?
RR: We are going to expand our range. We have just started doing bamboo straws that can be reused. We are not doing anything unique. The more you do, the more it will create awareness and acceptability and lead to people shunning plastic-based options. Using less disposable packaging is key. However, any disposable packaging used can be effectively recycled/composted.Street food businesses, garden parties, birthday parties, barbecues and festivals are areas we will focus on. Thats where on a small -to-medium scale you can bring about some change in perceptions that will bring about a wider change in how people operate.
LG: What is your favourite sustainable/bio-based product?
RR: Starch-based products or jute because they are manageable in terms of end of life.