Plastic cutleries are a significant source of land pollution. As per a report published in Economic Times in 2018, global plastic cutlery results in 22,000 tons of waste that goes directly into landfills every month. These plastics take almost 500-1000 years to decompose totally. One of the solutions to overcome this problem is not to use plastic cutleries, and instead, use biodegradable cutleries. Several Micro, Small, and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), are engaged in manufacturing such biodegradable cutleries. They develop cutleries such as plates with dried leaves of Sal, Dhak, Bauhinia, and Banyan. Spoons, Forks, and Knives are made from the dried-up bark of plants/trees. Agricultural wastes like wheat straw, hemp stems, nettle, reed, banana stems, vine shoots, and many others are innovatively transformed into distinctive, self-binding, durable natural fibers, and then these fibers are used to manufacture cutleries. Interestingly, there are some MSMEs producing entirely edible cutleries. These edible cutleries are innovatively made from whole wheat and jaggery and that too in different flavors. These edible cutleries also have several health benefits, and they also decompose away entirely in less than three months.
These small enterprises, which manufacture biodegradable and edible cutleries, are mainly located in rural areas, owing to the proximity to the agricultural villages due to the accessibility of raw materials. These enterprises work with local farmers to collect agricultural residues. For the edible cutlery, there isn’t much of a problem either, as India is the world’s second-biggest producer of wheat and the world’s largest producer of jaggery, accounting for more than 70% of global jaggery production. These small enterprises obtain the raw materials from the local farmers, which benefits the farmers. Most agricultural residues are useless to farmers; therefore, they usually burn the agricultural residues, which causes pollution, and smog and impacts the climate severely; it also causes respiratory distress among the residents. For instance, in Delhi, it gets increasingly difficult to breathe during this period due to the burning of agricultural residue in the neighboring states. Selling these leftovers to these enterprises, rather than burning them, benefits the farmers and the public at large. Farmers receive an additional income from their waste products. This is a classic example of the application of circular economy, where the concepts of reuse, redesign, and remanufacture are used.
The advantage of biodegradable and edible disposables is that they need not be carefully disposed. They can simply be consumed or given to cattle. Even if they are not disposed of, it takes around ten days for biodegradable cutleries to and three months for edible cutleries to get decomposed. Though from the sustainability perspective, these biodegradable and edible cutleries are beneficial, there are several challenges faced by the MSMEs producing them.
These small enterprises are mainly established next to the agricultural lands in small workspaces, and they generally get labor from the local village people. There are challenges that they face; Firstly, the inefficient urban-rural linkage i.e., transporting the items from rural villages to towns/cities. This increases the cost of these products in the market. Secondly, these small enterprises are unable to market their products effectively; therefore, the demand for these products is less. Thirdly, these small enterprises are unable to manufacture these products on a large-scale using machines; thus, the economy of scale is less. All this results in a higher cost for their products in the market when compared with plastic cutleries. In addition, the availability of low-cost alternative plastic products (though not sustainable products) is resulting in a challenge for these bio-degradable and edible cutleries to be sold in the market.
Several NGOs are doing their best to market these products; however, large-scale usage of these bio-degradable and edible cutleries is still not happening. Although few people now use paper cutlery instead of plastic, very few people have made the conversion to biodegradable cutlery. The government aids small businesses that produce edible cutlery, but it is unable to provide the same level of assistance to businesses that produce biodegradable cutlery. The government may mandate that only biodegradable cutleries be used in established organizations such as government offices, the corporate sector, and hotels, which will increase the usage of these products. In addition, the government may consider increasing the tax on the manufacturers of plastic cutleries, and this extra tax amount be distributed to the small businesses involved in producing these biodegradable and edible cutleries. Only if these challenges are addressed, MSMEs that innovatively manufacture biodegradable and edible cutleries can survive in the market in the long run. Their survival is essential to make this society a sustainable one.
In summary, in the face of the escalating problem of plastic cutlery pollution, small enterprises have emerged as champions of sustainability, producing biodegradable and edible alternatives. These innovative solutions offer hope for a greener future as they decompose within weeks or can be consumed, minimising environmental harm. By collaborating with local farmers and adopting the principles of circular economy, these enterprises create a win-win situation, reducing waste and providing additional income for farmers. However, logistical and marketing challenges, coupled with the availability of cheap plastic alternatives, hinder the widespread adoption of sustainable practices. To ensure their long-term survival and create a sustainable society, these MSMEs require better support, such as an improved supply chain, government mandates favouring biodegradables in the hospitality industry, and tax incentives to level the playing field with plastic manufacturers.