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Every year, the world commemorates April 22 as International Earth day portraying their care, love, protection, and support for the environment. As per the Hindu tradition in India, people worship Bhoomi Devi as a statutory godly figure of mother earth. Although these folklore practices seem appreciable, in reality, these days things are otherwise. And right now, one of the pressing issues that need a lot of attention is pollution, particularly plastic pollution.
Starting from packaging essentials to making electronic gadgets, we can see how plastic became an indispensable part of our daily life. Since 1950, more than 9 billion metric tonnes of plastic waste have been generated across India. Estimates show that the number would reach 55 million metric tons per year in 2041.
In 2018-19, India alone generated 3.3 million metric tonnes of plastic, says Central Pollution Control Board reports. Out of the total plastic waste generated in India, 40 percent goes unrecycled and makes its way into the oceans or gets discarded into the landfills. As a consequence of this, millions of sea animals like fishes, turtles, sharks, die every year by ingesting these toxic plastic materials that are stuck under the sea.
Unfortunately, the plastic we use might just be some use-and-throw material for us, but it’s a death trap placed for the sea animals. According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) nearly 8 million tons of plastic are found in the oceans yearly. If swift action isn’t taken against plastic, the amount of waste will almost triple by 2040.
According to Central Pollution Control Board, India generates around 27,000 tonnes of plastic waste per day and produced around 400 million tonnes of plastic waste in the year 2018-2019. Shocking fact in that is only 9 % of all the plastics ever produced was recycled and around 60 % of the plastics have been disposed into the natural environment or landfills which poses serious health and environmental hazards.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a vow in 2018 that India will phase out single-use plastic by the end of 2022. After the pledge, he tweeted, “The quest for material prosperity can’t lead to environmental degradation. We must remember that an unclean environment hurts the poor and vulnerable the most.” The United Kingdom government also followed India's footsteps towards environment safety, where Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May pledged to evacuate plastic from their country in 25 years.
Similarly, other countries like European Union, China are all on the same boat to abate plastic usage. The majority of the countries are in this battle to wipe plastic out from the lives of the people. But what’s the best alternative for plastic? Sustainable and biodegradable products – Because they are safe to use, easy to decompose, and most importantly they don't pollute the environment.
55-year old Vinaykumar Balakrishnan from Kerala made that possible by coming up with alternative products to plastic under the brand name of Thooshan, that’s not only eco-friendly but edible too. Speaking to Vinaykumar, he shared with us the journey of Thooshan.
Vinaykumar has worn several hats throughout his corporate life. Initially, he started in Pharma, gained 2 years of experience, and then moved to Indian Railways, where he worked in HR for 4.5 years. Later, he moved into banking, stayed stable for 10 years by working in two different banks. After that, he moved to the Life Insurance industry, where he worked as the General Manager for MetLife Insurance based in Bangalore. Finally, he left for Mauritius, where he went to become the CEO of an Insurance company.
At the age of 45, he retired from the busy corporate life and came back to India for his family. Post his retirement, having a passion for traveling and the other one giving back to nature, he started looking for something where he can volunteer for. So, Vinaykumar traveled abroad in search of something meaningful to fill the gaps in his life. While on his voyage, he saw a sustainable product that can replace plastic. Soon after he returned to India, he worked on the sustainable idea at a broader level.
“India is an agricultural country where most of its waste is either used for sustainable purposes or thrown out into the landfills or left it aside to float into the waterways. So I thought, why can't we do something about it. And that's where the idea started. As I wanted to experiment on this environmental idea. I came back to India and researched various bio-wastes, agricultural wastes. I identified a few, then I started working on that, and finally zeroed it down to wheat bran”, said Vinaykumar.
As we know after the milling process, a lot of bran gets wasted. Some portion of it goes to cattle fields but the majority of it goes as waste or thrown away. So, Vinaykumar did thorough research on wheat bran and found a solution on how to put the bran waste to good use. After a lot of paperwork went into the process of research, Vinaykumar approached CSIR- National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology, under the council of scientific and industrial research, Trivandrum, to discuss the idea in detail.
“The research is about basically I have given a few instructions. Since wheat bran is edible, what's happening is, we throw away the bran. We use only Atta. Atta doesn't contain much of the bran. Bran contains a lot of self-help proteins, but we don't use them. The end product should be edible to humans also, as far as possible. We are not forcing anybody to eat the plates. But if somebody wants to try, there's no harm in it”, shared Vinaykumar about behind-the-scenes studies.
While the whole idea seems fascinating, the name of the brand does too. The word Thooshan means in Malayalam it's banana leaves with tapered ends. Well, it’s an old tradition in Kerala or South India to serve food on banana leaves. In Malayalam, we call banana leaves "Thooshanila". In Sanskrit, it's known as TushaH, and in Hindi Tu means You + Shaan means Pride.
Now, this long-standing tradition dates back to a time where metal plates were not a thing or designed to be used. The best part is, even after decades, banana leaves remain a part of South Indian cutlery. And that’s not it. Vinaykumar has shared with us a very interesting analogy on how banana leaves became a part of the Indian culture, and how this ideology resembles his brand name.
He said, “As in olden days, we started eating food in banana leaves. We are now going back to nature again with this product. And in Kerala, Thooshan has another concept also. When a baby is born, on the 28th day, there is a ceremony, where a baby is placed on a banana leaf. It’s to portray that it’s the start of a new life. When he gets married or happens to have a function, he eats his food on the banana leaf again.”
Vinaykumar further continued, “According to the Hindu tradition in Kerala, when somebody dies the body is placed on the banana leaf. The full leaf is used from one end to the other end. Only half of the leaf is used at the beginning of birth, during the ceremony, but during death, the full leaf is used. It means he has completed his journey. He started from a leaf, he ended in a leaf. So from birth till death, Thooshan is a part of the journey. That's how the brand name came into place.”
As soon as the research was completed in 2019, Vinaykumar signed an MOU with CSIR in Feb 2020. And since then, they were the technology partner for Thooshan. “This was the first biodegradable project that CSIR was undertaking. It took almost two years to develop this product in the lab. I think this year they will come out with the technology”, said Vinaykumar.
He then incubated the Thooshan project at IIT Kanpur, Kerala agriculture university, and Indigram Labs, and all happened at the same time. To make the product stand out when compared to other eco-friendly competitors in the market, this entrepreneur has incorporated certain strategies.
As he shares a few of them with us, “first, it should be 100 percent biodegradable, edible and after use, it can be used as cattle feed”. You can give it to cows, animals or feed it to hens, cocks, ducks, etc. If you throw it in the lakes, it acts as fish feed. Otherwise, you can place it in your garden as it's organic manure for plants as well. Vinaykumar's idea is to keep the product pollution-free, and also have several purposes to serve.
His second requirement was, “I want it to be microwaveable. If somebody wants to microwave it for baking cake like that, it should withstand.” This makes the product withstand the temperature from minus 10 degrees Celsius to 140 degrees Celsius. And last but not the least requirement, “we use a lot of liquid items in our day to day lives like curries, soup or something like that. So this plate, whatever it may be, should not leak.” They have manufactured the product in such a way the content present in the plate can stay for up to 45 minutes.
“Say, if it's a soup bowl, if you are not able to consume it within 45 minutes, you'll get the taste of bran. Although the plate won't collapse or break into pieces. And the bran taste, it’s natural, but, some people may not like it, some people may like it. We are not adding any flavors, it's a natural product. So we expect people to consume within 45 minutes”, he asserted.
There’s one more inimitable thing about Thooshan’s production process. As the brand deals with a sustainable alternative to single-use plastic, Vinaykumar decided to keep the products crystal clean and hygienic, and the only way to do this is by forestalling the human touch. For that to happen, he has set up a fully automatic robotic factory. “The process to make these plates and other products of Thooshan is a bit difficult. So we went to a fully automatic process without any human touch. It's completely robotic. It has to be fully hygienic because one of the main purposes is exports also”, he says.
Currently, Thooshan starts with making dinner plates, followed by quarter plates, and then, the takeaway boxes for Swiggy, Zomato, and restaurants. The actual weight of a plate will be around 150 grams, but it can hold food up to 1.5 kilos.
To make tableware products, this Kochi-based edible brand sources its raw material i.e. wheat bran from the highest quality mills like Ashirvad, Annapurna Atta, etc. According to the United States Department of Agriculture Grain and Feed Annual report 2021, the wheat production was 107 million metric tonnes, but only 6.5 million metric tonnes of it were used for feeding animals.
Vinaykumar enlightened us about wheat bran waste production, where he said, “Roughly for making 1 kg of Atta, they are wasting 20 percent. Only 80 percent is used for making Atta. This waste as per Kerala alone, as per govt statistics, 60,000 tonnes is Kerala's waste, which means 5000 tonnes of waste is wasted every month. Again, I'm talking about wheat bran only. So, I'm trying to control a small percentage. From other places, wheat is coming to Kerala, it's milled here, and Kerala's consumption of wheat has gone beyond rice now. I think roughly around 51% of our population, as per govt statistics, eat wheat. Earlier, it was rice”
He further said that “All mills will have contracts with major brands. So what they have done is, they entered into a manufacturing contract with these mills here locally. Once they supply the wheat, it gets milled here. I'll be taking a part of Kerala's 5000 tonnes of waste every month and converting it into edible products.” Vinaykumar has set up his manufacturing plant in Angamaly where two large mills are available nearby. So, whenever he requires bran waste, he buys directly from those two large mills.
Now to kick-start any business, you require funds. So, just like every entrepreneur, Vinaykumar spent some of his savings and invested in Thooshan, while the rest, he approached Canara Bank for a loan. The whole project cost him around 1.2 crores to 1.5 crores. “It took two months to design the machine. Every part is manufactured in India. Most of the parts are made using grade 4 stainless steel (SS316). We are not using even a single screw from abroad. That is my direction to the manufacturers. We shouldn't depend on third countries for any imports. So, everything is Indian only”, said the entrepreneur.
Currently, the brand’s focus is manufacturing plates, bowls, takeaway boxes, disposable cups for tea and coffee, fork spoons, etc. They have also started making straws using coconut leaves. Next, they are trying to make carry bags as well. “You are supporting the environment, you are supporting the government movement, and it creates extra income for farmers for their waste. Right now, it's thrown out. So, they are getting some income out of this brand. Plus, it also acts as food for ants. So it's not wasted”, shared Vinaykumar on how his brand supports the environment and farmers.
Well, in a market where every single day we see a new product coming up, competition is nowhere to stop. But luckily, that’s not the case with Vinaykumar’s Thooshan products, as he claims that he doesn't have any competitor in his line of business, so far. Although there are tableware brands that make products from the discarded agriculture waste like pulses and grains, he says that "it costs substantially high due to its manufacturing process and human involvement in making."
“We are the only product available in this segment. But, I can say that there are other edible cutleries available, which are made from pulses and grains. And it's made manually, which is why the cost is high. Also, production capacity is not flexible, whereas mine is an automated plant and I can increase the production whenever I want to”, said Vinaykumar about the differences compared to other sustainable products that are similar in the race.
The next thing that differentiates Thooshan from other brands is hygiene. “Since the products are fabricated using technology, it’s completely free from all these viruses against those products that are made manually”, said Vinaykumar. However, he added, “although there are similar sorts of products, it has its share of challenges too.”
As far as plans of brand expansions, Vinaykumar decided to establish a virtue image in Kerala, because that’s where the brand is situated. Post-that, they plan to move to other parts of India and abroad as well. “We are getting a lot of inquiries for partnering with Thooshan. So what we will do is, we will give the technology, we will give the machinery, but manufacturing will be done under our brand name only. Once Kerala is launched, we will go ahead with other states”, remarks Vinaykumar on expanding his business.
And right now, Thooshan is only targeting HNIs, particularly high-end parties, destination weddings, hill stations, resorts, campfires, etc. As the costing part goes, the entrepreneur said, “The raw material is available in plenty in north India, the costing will be better. Once we start the production in the rest of India, the cost will come down.” He further continued saying, “When somebody bans something, there has to be an alternative. At that time, when I reach all over India, the price comes down and is affordable.”
Being a tableware/homeware product, it comes in a pack of 25. Case-in-point, when somebody buys a pack of 25 plates, once they open it, they have to use it immediately. Otherwise, they have to keep it in an airtight container. That is the condition that needs to be noted by customers. “Because it's a food-grade material. That is the challenge”, asserts Vinaykumar.
There are several other challenges Vinaykumar has faced as well. “It's very difficult. Even a 1-degree change here or there will alter the product. One degree of temperature, one degree of material, everything will change the product.” The other issue is acceptability by the people. “Because, as Indians, we are not used to being concerned about the environment much. If nature has to come back to its normal stage, we have to support it. So it's not an easy job”, Vinaykumar shares the hassles that his brand will endure in the future.
Thooshan being a sustainable brand, Vinaykumar plans to coordinate with like-minded people and those individuals who are concerned about the environment. As soon as the brand gets established in India, Vinaykumar plans to expand internationally.
So far, countries that are showing interest in starting a similar plant are U.S, Bangladesh, Srilanka, Vietnam, Singapore, Uman, Saudi, UK, France, Philippines, etc. “Once we set up in India, immediately, we will start in other countries also. Because I believe in Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam which means, the World Is One Family. We are living in different zones. That's it. Every country has the same problem with plastic. So, it's a win-win for everybody”, shares Vinaykumar about his plans.
He concluded with a note: “Why Thooshan? Because it's a fight against single-use plastic. If we don't control it right now, it's already entering our food system through microplastic waste. That is why we are getting a lot of cancer patients. One of the reasons is our food habits. A lot of microplastics have gone inside our stomachs. Even the fish you eat contains plastic. The earlier we stop it, the better for the next generation. This is a way we are going back to nature.”
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Try a little pampering. Shop these highly coveted luxurious items that are perfect for your upcoming holidays and parties.