ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, December 17, 2006
Vol. 41 - No 29

Polythene ban: Viraj’s degradable substitute from ‘edible’ granules

Lunch sheets, sili-sili bags and grocery bags will be taboo in the New Year, under a ban on polythene, with a thickness of 20 microns and below, to be strictly enforced on January 1, 2007.

What of the hundreds of “home industry” men, women and children engaged in the cooking, packing and selling of food packets ranging from the string-hopper breakfast to the rice-and-curry lunch and the koththu rotti dinner? What of all the workers involved in producing sili-sili bags, in a country where even the take-away plain tea is issued in them?

Viraj showing a bio-degradable sheet Pix by Gemunu Wellage

Enterprising Viraj Senewiratne, 32, who is back from Australia after completing a degree in international business studies, has come up with an answer: not just an alternative to the lunch sheets and bags but an eco-friendly solution.

A bio-degradable bag made of starch granules could be the answer to the trouble not only the cottage-type polythene bag factories but also supermarkets and the public will face with the ban, says Viraj explaining that these granules made of corn, potato and sugar cane could be fed into the polythene bag-manufacturing machines that are already in the country.

According to Viraj, with the ban, nearly 300,000 people engaged in the lunch sheet and sili-sili bag industry directly or indirectly would be “stranded”. Countrywide five million lunch sheets are used per day.

The polythene or plastic bags that are in use now are made from a by-product of petroleum, that’s why they are not compostable and last for more than 200 years. But in the case of bags produced from starch granules, when they are in bio-degradable conditions such as soil, bacteria would start attacking the starch component to break them down, he says.

The polythene lunch sheet costs 15 cents, while the starch granule sheet would be around one rupee, says Viraj, because the granules have to be imported from Australia. The plastic pellets for the manufacture of polythene bags are imported from Malaysia, Indonesia and India. However, with the ban, the cost of producing a polythene sheet over 20 microns will be around 80-90 cents. “The 100% bio-degradable and compostable starch resin raw material has met both ISO and European standards,” he says. “It could be a substitute to the entire plastic industry, but using the same machinery and workers. These products will decompose in soil within 160 days.”

Viraj who grabbed the idea for starch granule lunch sheets and bags while studying in Australia is hoping to set up a factory in Nittambuwa, as soon as the feasibility studies are completed. “I am hoping to get a machine from Matara and begin operations on January 1,” he says, adding that around 100,000 bags could be produced per day.

Granules made of corn, potato and sugarcane can be used in bag production

How did Viraj who studied international business in Perth, Australia get interested in eco-friendly products?

It has been in his blood for a while, he laughs, adding that he and a few other Thomians were the initiators of the Environmental Conservation Society while in school in 1990.

“In Mount Lavinia those days the turtle omelette was a famous delicacy. There was a lady who used to get turtle eggs from Kosgoda and make this mouth-watering omelette. We came up with a strategy to buy the eggs from her at a higher rate and started a turtle hatchery at S. Thomas’,” he says. While in Australia, a few friends of his had an agency to procure the raw material in the form of the starch granules for the production of bio-degradable bags and that got him thinking on the lines that such bags would be ideal for Sri Lanka.

For Viraj, his vision for Sri Lanka is a country free of polythene clogging drains or strewn all over. “Shopping bags, garbage bags, bubble wrap, fertilizer bags, mulch film, lunch boxes, cups, plates, knives, gloves, raincoats, aprons, table cloths, nappies, medical products…… name it, these granules can make it. Along with being eco-friendly, the added bonus, of course, is that they would be non-toxic,” he adds.

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Copyright 2006 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.