Two startups are spearheading Indian agrowaste valorisation. With better government policy, many more could follow.
India is one of the top food producers in the world, up there with other global breadbaskets like China, the US and Brazil.
This makes for enormous organic wastestreams: India’s farms generate 500 megatonnes of residues per year, equivalent to the weight of around 1, 300, 000 Boeing 747s.
Two startups are already using this untapped ocean of feedstock to confront two of India’s major environmental problems: plastic waste and air pollution.
Bio-Lutions is a German company based in Hamburg that opened its first factory in 2018 in Bangalore, India. Bio-Lutions takes agricultural waste and turns it into a single-use plastic substitute known as self-binding fibre, which the company has branded under the name fibcro. In 2022, its yearly unit output amounted to 350 million.
The company drew investments from European private investors. In 2017 it won its first venture round worth €500,000, rising to €1.2M in a seed round later the same year, and finally bagging a €8.3M Series A in 2019. Behind its Series A payoff were KFW’s DEG, a German corporate finance company, and Delivery Hero, a Germany delivery company.
Despite its European roots, Indian agrowaste lies at the heart of its business model. It buys plant waste direct from Indian farmers, such as the local silk farmers of Bangalore who routinely generate large amounts of biomass from pruning mulberry crops.
Bio-lution’s fibcro goes into making biodegradable packaging and tableware using a patented process that minimises input-waste during conversion.
What sometimes happens with the production of bio-based industrial fibres is that chemicals are used to extract cellulose from the plant material. The Bio-Lutions process, however, does not cherry-pick biological compounds from the feedstock, meaning much more of the natural fibre goes into the final products. This method also eliminates the need for binding agents, industrial process chemicals that pose toxic risks to the environment.
The company’s products can replace single-use plastic applications in packaging and currently focuses on trays, cutlery, and cup lids. Its material biodegrades in about three months.
Bio-lutions business model is not just geared towards tackling plastic pollution – it opens the path to reducing the air pollution that emanates from agricultural waste burning in India.
India’s crop burning pollution comes mainly from paddy fields. After the combine harvester has finished its work, the straw waste left on the ground must be removed to prepare for planting the wheat crop. It is extremely costly to remove the detritus mechanically, so farmers opt for burning instead.
It is estimated that 51% of air pollution in India comes from industrial sources, 27% from vehicles, and 17% from crop burning. Around 92 million metric tons of crop waste are burned every year in India, causing smog to settle in thick clouds during winter, posing a serious public health risk including in cities like Delhi. Replicating the Bio-lutions model across India could help mitigate the problem.
Craste: from crop stubble to packaging
Bio-Lutions is profiting from India’s cheap, abundant biomass waste with the benefit of European capital. However, there is a native startup working on the same task of converting the country’s vast agro-waste into plastic-displacing goods.
Craste was founded by siblings Shubham Singh and Himanasha Singh. It takes crop waste and makes them into moulded packaging, packaging, and paper products, paying the farmers for their waste.
The company has followed a very different funding route to Bio-Lutions, obtaining grants from the central government, Biotech Ingition, the BIRAC SOCH Award, and other organisations.
Craste works specifically with crop stubble – post-harvest leftovers that farmers usually burn away. Subham first struck on the idea while reading newspaper articles on the polluting effects of stubble burning in India.
Buying the agricultural waste from the farmers at 6 rupees per kilo, his company now creates packaging materials for furniture. Their manufacturing method is a patent-pending technology called Fumasolv which extracts lignin, a bio-compound that gives plants their structure.
Plastic waste in India
As elsewhere, single use plastic pollution is a huge problem in India. Although per capita single use plastic is among the lowest in the world at between 3- 11 kg, its large population means that it generates huge amounts in absolute terms. Total plastic consumption is around 14 million tons while the plastic waste generated per year is about 3.5 million tons.
In 2021, the Indian government took legislative action against plastic waste, banning certain SUP items altogether. However, this plastics blacklist only covers around 2-3 % of India’s total plastic waste.
Recycling infrastructures are also thin on the ground in India: building and running these are costly and there is also the financial and logistical costs of efficient recycling material collection.
Together, these factors mean that biodegradable packaging plus stringent legal measures to cut demand are the most viable solutions to waste reduction. Prime Minister Modi said as much when he acknowledged in 2021 that “availability of cheap alternatives to cater the demand of these banned products are critical challenges which need to be looked into”.
Biomanufacturing stimulus essential for dispensing with plastics
India’s 2021 ban on select single use plastics will remain toothless until backed up by a policy framework to encourage enterprise in cost-effective biomaterials.
At the moment, India trails China, Japan, and the EU when it comes to stimulating new avenues for the sustainable bio-based economy, including targeted solutions to replacing single use plastic applications with biobased alternatives.
By contrast, the Indian government has historically been strong on supporting the biofuels sector, investing heavily in domestic enterprise here. State-owned Indian Oil Corp plans to build two more second gen bio-refineries for fuels while the Indian government has proposed 12 more to be built across 11 states in the country.
Government efforts to build up biofuels from agro-waste is now on the cards too. In 2022, Y.B. Ramakrishna, Member Expert, Working Group on Biofuels, Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Gas, Government of India, announced that 450 new biofuels distilleries were in the works that could produce ethanol from damaged foodgrains or agrowaste.
In preparation for the project, the government has been systematically mapping all bio wastes – work that would prove invaluable to rolling out any equivalent programme for bioplastics and bio-textiles manufacturing.
Indian biomanufacturing plan in the works
While Indian strategy on utilising agricultural waste for plastic packaging substitutes is under-developed compared to its push on biofuels, there has also been some recent progress in the area.
In February 2023, the government of India convened a National Consultation Meeting towards drafting a policy framework on bio-manufacturing in the country. This brand new Indian biomanufacturing programme is headed by the Indian Department of Biotechnology, keen to use the programme to achieve its BioE3 vision for green economic growth. Modi has publicly stated that his cabinet aims to “develop India as a world-class $100 billion biomanufacturing hub by 2024”. Currently, the Indian bioeconomy is worth around $80 billion.
Homegrown companies are most likely to benefit: the programme is particularly targeted at supporting domestic manufacturing, much like the vaunted US biomanufacturing package launched in the US by President Biden in 2022.
Active government support to grow its circular materials sector would give teeth to India’s single-use plastics legislation, since punitive measures banning a wide range of plastics can only be effective if there are tangible alternatives, particularly for applications where plastic packaging currently serves essential functions like food and medical safety standards.
As a wealthy yet developing country, India has a rare advantage: it has a large agricultural sector alongside a rapidly growing and highly sophisticated tech industry. Already, it is a world-leader in biopharmaceuticals as well as in biofuels production.
These factors give India huge potential to expand its circular, bio-based supply chain, already holding the technical expertise to build biorefineries, manage bio-based supply chains, and possessing high volumes of unused feedstock.
A policy framework that replicates national bioeconomy programmes already installed in other nations would be a significant boost to the latent potential of Indian agro-waste valorisation.