Each year, the paddy harvest season is followed by fires raging across northern India, as farmers burn off their unwanted stubble in the open. In fact, nearly 20 million tonnes of rice straw is burned every year in India.
The impact of this practice is enormous and can be felt in the lungs of the residents of the surrounding areas, including the national capital. The winter months are replete with reports of massive clouds of smoke being blown across Punjab and neighbouring states in the direction of Delhi. Contributing immensely to NCR’s air pollution woes, this smoke has severe and scary consequences for public health.
So, how do we douse these pollution-causing fires? Perhaps by transforming paddy straw from useless waste into useful resource. And researchers at Indian Institute of Technology Delhi (IIT-D) are doing just this!
Understanding the fundamental reasons behind why farmers resort to stubble burning, Kriya Labs (a startup incubated at IIT-D’s Technology Business Incubator) has developed a sustainable processing technology that can convert agro-waste like paddy straw into pulp.
This pulp is then utilised to make an assortment of products like paper, plates and cups that are not only completely biodegradable, they are also cheaper than their plastic counterparts!
Furthermore, unlike conventional pulp-making process, this technique doesn’t require heavy machinery and can be economically integrated to small scale operations. A pre-existing paper recycling unit can use this patent-pending process to produce agro-based pulp and diversify their product range.
So how does this process work? According to Kriya Labs, the paddy straw is first treated with a natural solvent that segregates the silica and lignin (organic polymer) present in it from the usable cellulose.
“The solvent system developed for the process is also completely biodegradable, non-volatile, made of natural products and completely safe to use. With our process, we add value to the agro waste near to its generation site by facilitating setting up small scale pulp-production units in a decentralised system”, explains Ankur Kumar (Co-Founder and CEO of Kriya Labs), speaking to NDTV.
Next, it undergoes an optimisation process that converts it into pulp. The pulp is dried and moulded into various shapes (cups, plates etc) with the help of machines. It can also be utilised for production of cardboards, bio-foams and certain furniture items. In fact, even the by-products can be used to develop a spearate chain of value added products, adding yet another layer of eco-friendly and economic viability.
As such, the additional revenue generated by easy and profitable disposal of agro-waste — from one tonne of stubble, 500 kg of pulp can be produced — can be a crucial incentive in convincing farmers not to burn their straw.
As Neetu Singh, a faculty member working on the project, tells Indian Express,
“The pulp that we make from the waste can be sold for Rs 45 per kg, even by the most conservative estimate. So it would actually be profitable for the farmers, instead of burning the straw. A one tonne processing unit will cost around Rs 35 lakh.”
The dedicated IIT graduates at Kriya Lab are now working to take their sustainable technology to governments and companies, who can then do their bit to make it more widespread. They are also providing required technical and operational training to rural entrepreneurs looking for profitable ways to dispose locally generated agro-waste.
Here‘s another a unique way to combat urban air pollution — a mobile wall of moss that can clean as much polluted air as a small forest!