Abhinav Talwar had the good fortune to grow up cradled amidst the beautiful pine-clad hills of Himachal Pradesh. Born in a small town called Dagshai, he shares how the surrounding blanket of evergreen forests has always been an integral part of their lives.
The picturesque roads of his native land, meandering through the hills bordered by giant Himalayan pines (Pinus Roxburghii), is an image that instantly incites a sense of wanderlust in many of our hearts.
But with the beauty also comes a bane that has impacted communities and wildlife for decades – rampant forest fires caused by fallen pine needles.
“Having grown up there, I have a first-hand understanding of this problem. The summer season is especially bothersome, as these trees shed their highly inflammable needles. They easily catch on fire, causing unaccountable damage to the environment,” Abhinav says.
Another report adds how waste burning and slash-and-burn agriculture practised by several local communities aggravates the situation. A state forest department study further reveals how in 2017-18, a total of 1,168 cases of forest fires affected more than 9,400 hectares of forest land.
“Plus, the needles hinder the growth of any flora on the forest floor, due to their antimicrobial properties.”
Abhinav, along with Maithri V, has an idea that may work. The duo begun an environmental engineering venture called Vasshin Composites in 2019 to tackle this issue by creating transforming these needles into innovative and eco-friendly tableware and other utility products.
The duo’s intent was not only to protect the environment but also to eliminate the rampant use of plastic in regular-use items.
From biodegradable face shields, spoons, mugs, to plates, bowls and glasses, this Delhi-based startup technology has been recycling pine needles into incredible products.
Paths cross For a Solution
Abhinav and Maithri come from very different backgrounds. While Abhinav, currently the CEO of the company, is an electronics & computer science engineer with substantial experience in the area of metallurgy, Maithri is an arts graduate with expertise in the energy sector and the current COO.
And yet, their thoughts aligned to find a solution for forest fires with sustainable innovation. In 2019, they poured in most of their savings to start Vasshin Composites.
“In the initial stages of experimentation, we worked with bamboo, wheat straw, rice husk and many such materials. But we soon realised that almost all of it could be easily recycled or upcycled in various ways. Almost no one was doing anything constructive about the pine needles, – other than inflammable products like resin. We wanted to elevate this material and make something that had a potential for mass appeal like daily products. All the qualities of being eco-friendly, biodegradable as well antimicrobial made it an excellent choice for making tableware,” says Maithri.
While Vasshin’s journey began with the manufacturing of bio-agro compostables and headbands using the pine needles, it later evolved into making durable and cost-friendly tableware products. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, it began to manufacture face shields as well, replacing the need for plastic ones.
In partnership with several companies, Vasshin Composites have sold over 1 lakh units of face shields so far to clinics, pharmaceutical firms and hospitals.
Bengaluru-based Quepreon Biologicals, a biopharma company is one of the many users and B2B collaborators with Vasshin. “We have sold more 30,000 units of Vasshin Composites’ face shields to various medical centres and have received great reviews so far. More than 500 clients have given us positive feedback stating that face shields are not only biodegradable but also economical and allows them to avoid any plastic contamination,” says the company vice president, Gururaj R.
Pine Compostables to Tableware
The duo decided to experiment further and create a range of alternative products that can considerably reduce the use of plastic at a reasonable price. As a result, they created a unique range of tableware and kitchen sets, using a blend of pine needles with metals, polymers and other minerals.
Interestingly, while the processing of the pine needles stripped it of its inflammable properties, the antimicrobial quality remained. The processed version being used to make cutlery, plates, cups, glasses, etc. proved to be beneficial as an extra layer of hygiene.
Owing to this, Maithri adds how this material can be used even to make other products like stationery, furniture lining, etc., and is exceptionally relevant to the needs of the current times.
This study also confirms that the essential oil extracted from pine needles also has the potential to be used as a natural antimicrobial agent and antioxidant in food processing.
Expounding on its benefits, the CEO adds, “Every year the forest fires cause considerable damage to the environment, especially with the heavy emissions of harmful gases like carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.”
In addition to averting forest fires and natural waste management, the duo is also financially empowering local communities by tying up with local vendors and forest management committees to procure the raw material.
Pine needles are collected by the local workers there, packed in compact blocks and transported into the three manufacturing units in Bengaluru, Mysuru and Baroda. From injection, moulding, thermoforming to the packaging of the finished product, all of the work in done inside the Vasshin Composites production centres.
Now available on e-commerce platforms like Amazon, the founders are planning to step into B2B sales through various large-scale distributors, like Spencer’s, Big Bazaar etc. They intend to bring the product to the masses, making it a viable alternative to everyday-use plastic items.
“Through our work, if we can delay the occurrence of forest fires or even reduce the impact of annual forest fires caused due to pine needles, we would feel a sense of achievement. The onus of protecting the environment is on each one of us, be it producers or consumers. With this innovation, we are just starting the cycle of transformation,” concludes Maithri.
(Edited by Vinayak Hegde)