Nature’s alternative to polythene

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By 2017-09-10

By Sanuj Hathurusinghe
Ceylon Today Features

The use of polythene bags and lunch sheets has roots running deep into our society that it is unimaginable for many of us to do without them. To be fair, polythene has many desirable qualities that make it appealing. It is light, durable, easy to carry, easy to use and easy to throw away. These characteristics make polythene ideal for our busy lives. But above all, what makes polythene perfect is that it comes cheap. At the end of the day everything comes down to money and so does the use of polythene. There are many other options out there but none of them comes as cheap as polythene.

So far, cheaper the better
Polythene may be cheap but it does come at a price, a price we all are aware of but are still willing to overlook as polythene is the cheaper and easier way out. It is not as if the country has never seen other much more nature-friendlier substitutes for polythene. A.U. Sarath Kumara Chandrasiri, an entrepreneur and a small-scale industrialist who is the proud owner of Delshan Enterprises Lanka, has been successfully using natural leaves in food packing for the past 20 years. It is one thing if you use a banana leaf or a lotus leaf found on your own in wrapping your lunch but money plays a major role if someone has to provide it for you. "Whatever said and done, people ultimately tend to go for the cheaper option. That is understandable. It is one of the main reasons why industries like ours haven't captured the local market yet" says Chandrasiri.

Ban is a blessing
All of that was changed from the turn of this month as the government placed a ban on using certain polythene and Styrofoam products in food packing. To Chandrasiri's ears, the news of the ban was music. As on cue, the demand for his eco-friendly products has spiked. "The ban makes us look for products other than polythene lunch sheets or Styrofoam food containers; which is exactly what industries like ours needed" expresses a contented Chandrasiri.

Eco-friendly options might come with a higher price tag but ultimately, it is a price that we all should pay for the greater good it does for the environment. If you are still unwilling to pay such a price and opt to continue with polythene, well, tough luck. Now you are compelled to as the law doesn't tolerate polythene anymore.

An idea sprouted overseas
Chandrasri wanted to experiment with eco-friendly food utensils a long time ago. Certain ideas he had date back as the late '80s. What eventually managed to spark a bright idea came to him during a pilgrimage tour to India that he took part in more than 20 years ago. "During our trip, we visited the Taj Mahal. Even back then we were not allowed to bring polythene into the historical site. On our way to the Taj Mahal I saw a vendor selling food in a cup made out of three leaves pressed together and held together with a coconut ekel" said Chandrasiri.

With what he saw in India in mind, Chandrasiri came back to Sri Lanka and started experimenting with different types of leaves. First it was the common ones like Banana leaves and Kanda leaves before moving on to rather unconventional ones such as Teak leaves. "Some people don't like it when the leaves have a hairy surface while some don't really mind it" revealed Chandrasiri.
It was then that Chandrasiri came across the material which he eventually would get famous for using.

Using Kolapatha in making plates
Areca nut leaves or what we commonly call Kolapath have been in use in Sri Lanka for centuries. Dodol patta used in packing Kalu Dodol is none other than Areca nut leaves. The Pani Mula commonly used by Veddah people too are made out of the same. Some of us would still remember using Kolapath as a childhood plaything but Chandrasiri says that it used to be our 'lunch sheet' in the past as people would eat rice and curry out of it.

Now Chandrasiri presses Kolapath and makes plates, cups and dishes out of them. Kolapath plates come in six different sizes varying from three to 11 inches. Using 30 different pressing machines he has at his disposal, Chandrasiri produces about 80 different types of plates.

At first, Chandrasiri managed to find Kolapath material from his own home town, Galewela, but the growing demand for his products has forced him to seek Kolapath from as far away as Passara, Badulla. "We collect Kolapath even from Colombo but since it is the rainy season now we need to do it in a hurry and press it before the leaves can grow fungi" says Chandrasiri.

Kolapath plates are durable and last long. Chandrasiri says they will last as long as 15 years without losing shape if used with dry food. "The plate absorbs moisture and gradually loses shape if used with wet food but still, it could last more than a week if stored properly, say in a refrigerator" says Chandrasiri.

Chandrasiri's unique idea has not gone unnoticed as many local businesses are now using his products in packaging and some have even won awards. Royal Cashew, a company in the industry of cashew processing and packing, has won several awards including Pro Foods Pro Packs Award for the Best Eco Friendly Packaging of a Product in the years 2009 and 2001. In 2015, the company won the Lanka Star Gold Award for using eco friendly packaging and the Asia Star Award was won the following year. Speaking to Ceylon Today Group Manager of Royal Cashew Dr. Ruwan Wathugala said the collaboration between him and Chandrasiri happened 12 years ago as a result of him seeing a newspaper article written on Chandrasiri's products. "Sri Lankans are still a bit hesitant to go for eco-friendly packaging as they are a bit expensive but the demand from overseas is pretty good. We export Kolapath packed cashew gift items to countries as far as New Zealand" said Dr. Wathugala.

Ideal replacement for lunch sheets
Other than plates, dishes and cups, Chandrasiri produces lunch boxes in two different sizes, good news for many who are willing to switch from a traditional lunch packet to an eco friendly lunch box. Styrofoam trays that we witness in supermarkets mostly used to hold cut veggies and fruits too could be replaced with a Kolapath tray Chandrasiri makes. Chandrasiri actually has high hopes that it will be so in the future.

"One of the advantages of a polythene lunch sheet is its manoeuvrability. People can use it to pack rice and curry into a lump that doesn't leak. Banana leaves or Lotus leaves could be used as a perfect substitute but with both, it is hard to pack the meal into a compact ball-like shape. We have come up with a 'lunch sheet' made from pressing Banana leaves and it could easily be used to pack rice into a bath mula shape" says Chandrasiri. Banana leaf lunch sheets are easily manoeuvrable and could be used just like a typical polythene lunch sheet.

Demand is increasing
Chandrasiri now has six working under him in his small factory. About 800 different plates, dishes and cups are made every day and all of them get sold in quick time. Other than plates, Chandrasiri makes wedding invitations and wedding cake packs using Kolapath as well.

Chandrasiri's products have that unique appeal which catches the eyes of tourists. As a result, well known hotels such as Aliya and Mount Lavinia Hotel regularly request his products. "At first our aim was to target the tourism industry but oddly enough only about 20% of our products are bought by hotels. The rest is bought by local vendors, especially those who run cane-product shops to sell in their local shops." revealed Chandrasiri.

Chandrasiri who used to be an electrician believes that without his knowledge of machinery, none of these innovative ideas would have materialized into the success they are today. He intends to experiment on Corn leaves in the long run. The same people who argue that paper kills trees would say the same applies in Chandrasiri's trade but he thinks otherwise. "We only use dry Kolapath so it cannot be cut off and has to fall off the tree, naturally. We cut down a Banana tree after the harvest has been reaped and see how much of good, useable leaves we let go to waste.

India, being such a vast country has put their Banana leaves to good use so why can't we? The truth is even I can barely use all the materials I collect. They are in abundance. If we can make use of the natural materials around well enough, this polythene ban wouldn't be so much of a problem" reflected Chandrasiri.

(Pix by J. Weerasekara)

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