Every year the students of the Zilla Parishad High School in Chintalkunta, Gadwal district, Telangana, participate in an annual sapling planting drive. Even on their birthdays, the students are encouraged to plant a tree. These seedlings are planted around the school and are usually grown in plastic bags.
In March 2020, Srija A, a class 9 student of the school was digging the soil to plant a sapling but to her shock and dismay, she found a plastic bag after having dug a few feet underground.
Speaking of the non-eco-friendly nature of plastics, Srija laments, “I immediately realised this was from one of the earlier sapling-drives. I did not want this to continue every year so I started to think of a sustainable solution to raise seedlings.”
After a few months of research, the 14-year-old innovated a biodegradable planter made from groundnut shell pulp. Here’s how she got her entire school to stop using plastics for tree-plantation drives.
Making pots out of groundnut shells
Groundnut cultivation is prevalent in the Gadwal district and young Srija, who was well aware of the shells being referred to as agro-waste, knew exactly what she needed to do next.
“Usually, the shells are ground into a powder and used as an energy source or made into a pulp and used as manure. With help from my mentor and Math teacher, Augustien P, I learnt that the shells are rich in phosphorus and calcium,” says Srija.
Since groundnuts grow on the upper-most layer of the soil, it can retain water and disintegrate slowly. By the end of April, Srija decided to put her theory to the test.
She managed to make a prototype of the planter by procuring shells from a mill situated near her home. She ground them in a mixer at home, added water to make it into a pulp and moulded it onto a water bottle to form the shape of a cup.
“But my first attempt was unsuccessful as the planter was too fragile,” says Srija, adding that she approached her mentor for help.
Professor Augustien helped Srija make the planter into a sturdy one by adding some “extra natural ingredients”, without disclosing the details.
“Once, the planter was sturdy enough, Srija added some soil and planted a neem sapling into it. We buried it underground at school and monitored it regularly to determine how long it would take to disintegrate,” says Augustien, adding that it took less than 20 days.
Winning state-level awards
For coming up with a sustainable solution that can eliminate the use of plastic, Srija was awarded a Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) Innovation award, under the innovation by school students category, in September 2020.
Subsequently, her idea was also validated by the T-Works, Telangana, who offered a prototype design for machinery that can help Srija increase production capacity.
“I have been making five to six planters every day by hand and have successfully planted 80 saplings. But, with the machinery, I can increase production capacity and make 10,000 planters by July 2021,” says Srija.
Augustien says that even for future sapling drives that the school will conduct, they will be sourcing planters from Srija.
(Edited by Divya Sethu)