Whether it’s the styrofoam plate you eat from at a wedding, or the plastic lunchbox your kid carries to school, or the disposable cutlery you use when the maid does not come to do the washing — your tableware choices affect the environment. But there is one woman who is fighting the plastic menace with an innovative business idea.
“Plastic has become a matter of convenience. It’s cheap and easily available. But we need to be responsible for every item we use,” says Samanvi Bhograj, a Bengaluru-based entrepreneur who founded Visfortec Private Limited – a company that manufactures 100% biodegradable and compostable tableware products made from plant fibre.
Samanvi started searching for alternatives to plastic tableware about four years ago: “I had worked in the field of sustainable energy for some time and was always inclined towards working for the environment. I wanted to replace plastic with a natural material rather than something that would deplete our resources.”
After extensive research and lots of reading, she decided to manufacture products using sugarcane bagasse – the fibre obtained from sugarcane after extracting juice.
The products include food containers and tableware – like plates, bowls, meal trays and cups – which decompose within 30-60 days after being discarded. The company sources processed bagasse from other organizations. This material is then moulded, dried, heated, and given other final touches. Heat-induced pressing during the manufacturing process gives structural strength to the cutlery. Additionally, the inter-fibre bonding makes the products water and oil resistant. It is a completely natural process and involves no binders, additives, coatings or chemical residues, resulting in a nontoxic, harmless and healthy alternative to plastic. The cutlery also does not impart colour, odour or taste to food. The products are microwave-safe and have an estimated shelf life of two years. Users cannot wash the tableware or containers after use; they have to be discarded.
A third generation entrepreneur, Samanvi was always motivated to start her own business and provide employment to people. She started Visfortec at the age of 25, after finishing her engineering and MBA.
Today, the company produces about 15 lakh pieces of cutlery every month and is, according to her, South India’s first and only manufacturing unit for products made from plant fibre. It caters to organizations, restaurants and takeaway shops that need packaging material on a regular basis.
The cost of the products varies based on size. While cups are for 95 paise and above, plates range from Rs. 2-Rs. 7 each. Meal boxes cost about Rs. 14 and the containers vary from Rs. 8 to Rs. 18. The wooden spoons come for Rs. 1.95.
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Samanvi also works with women in villages around Bengaluru to produce packaging material like bags, bin liners and garment covers made of jute, paper and cloth. Her team visits villages in Tumkur, Nelamangala, Mysore, etc., and employs women who work from home. The Bengaluru team has 12 members.
She mainly hires women and several of her employees are hearing and speech impaired.
“People are usually surprised when they see Visfortec products. They look at the items, realise they are not made of plastic and are shocked because the finished tableware looks so good,” says Samanvi. Visfortec goods are available online and also in some organic stores in Bengaluru. They will soon be sold through Amazon, Snapdeal, etc., too. Samanvi hopes that in the future her products can be made available to everyone – from street vendors to five star hotels.
“Our biggest challenge has been countering ignorance about the harmful effects of plastic and making people aware about alternatives. Visfortec is not here just to sell products – we want to educate customers and have them feel responsible for the choices they make,” she says.
According to a survey conducted by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 60 Indian cities, the quantity of plastic waste generated in the country is about 15,342.6 tonnes per day.
The total plastic waste collected and recycled is estimated to be 9,205 tonnes per day; 6,137 tonnes goes uncollected. Such dire circumstances call for several more innovative initiatives like Samanvi’s.
“Yes, plastic is all around us. But it’s more a luxury than a necessity. We need to start living the way our grandparents did. Carry your own bags when you go shopping, or take your box along to restaurants when you want a takeaway meal. Once we are gone, what remains is what we have used during our lifetime. So choose wisely and live a green life,” she concludes.