India's Solution to PollutionFrom September to November, the pollution in North India is so severe that 15 of its cities ranked among the world’s top 20 most polluted in 2020. This is mostly due to crop stubble burning, a practice that involves farmers destroying crop residue between rice harvests, and extensive use of Thermocol packaging. Pollution has an inordinate impact on those living in poverty, posing severe health threats such as a heightened risk of lung or heart disease.

Indian entrepreneur Arpit Dhupar presented a solution to India’s pollution when he established Dharaksha Ecosystems in 2020. The organization’s name, which combines the Hindi words “Dhara” (earth) and “Raksha” (saving), summarizes its mission: “to save the earth from pollution.”

A Gray Sky

A graduate of mechanical engineering, Dhupar was inspired partly by an early initiative to recycle diesel smoke into reusable material. While working on the project, he visited many agricultural villages across the country, which raised his awareness of the pollution caused by crop stubble burning.

He learned that villagers felt the effects of burning much worse than those in the city. Living near the fields meant close exposure to the “highly toxic” smoke laden with hazardous chemicals. Furthermore, this smoke can ruin the organic content of local farmers’ soil.

However, Dhupar discovered that there was no crop stubble burning in Peva, a region of India that, significantly, contains a paper mill. There, rather than burning it, crop stubble residue is used to create craft paper, the raw material for cardboard. This sparked the idea that led to Dharaksha Ecosolutions. As Dhupar explained, “If we can create packaging out of crop stubble waste that can eliminate plastic and Thermocol from the market, it will be a great synergy.”

What is Thermocol?

Thermocol is a non-biodegradable material that is responsible for much of the world’s plastic pollution. It is common in everyday products like disposable plates, food containers, coffee cups and decorations. Primarily, however, Thermocol is used in packaging. A form of polystyrene, it is lightweight, shock-absorbent and versatile. Unfortunately, these benefits do not outweigh Thermocol’s damaging effects on the planet.

Most discarded Thermocol ends up in landfills and flows into rivers and oceans. The alternative, which is incineration, produces “toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and about 90 different hazardous chemicals” that can harm the eyes and nervous system.

Although Thermocol is 100% recyclable, the process is very expensive and not economically feasible. Composed of 95% air, it does not generate viable income for waste pickers who “sell their waste to kabadiwalas by weight, not volume.” Thus, Thermocol poses an ongoing environmental threat that begs for a solution.

India’s Solution to Pollution

The aim of Dharaksha Ecosolutions “is to curb stubble burning and plastic pollution by creating biodegradable and sustainable alternatives.” Dhupar and his team found their solution in a material that could reduce crop stubble burning and replace Thermocol.

Dhupar devised this solution using mushrooms. He found that mixing rice crop waste with mushrooms would break down and convert the waste into a biodegradable foam, developing an efficient packaging material. Additionally, while non-biodegradable materials decompose over hundreds of years, Dhupar’s material decomposes in just 60 days.

Producing such material on a mass scale requires collaboration, hard work and a factory. The factory is capable of converting 250 metric tons of rice stubble into usable packaging. The stubble comes from 100 acres of land in Punjab and Haryana, with the farmers who provide it now earning $30 per acre for something they used to previously burn.

A Blue Sky

“We feel we can disrupt the problem of plastic pollution and at the same time solve the problem of crop stubble waste burning,” Dhupar explained. His mission to turn India’s sky blue is well underway. Since innovating the new material, Dharaksha Ecosolutions has:

  • Prevented more than half a million pounds of polystyrene from entering landfills.
  • Produced 0.8 tonnes of packaging material per every tonne of crop stubble waste.
  • Been named one of The 30 Most Promising Indian Startups of 2022.

But Dhupar’s work is not done. His future plans for Dharaksha Ecosolutions include:

  • Extending his material use to furniture construction would help reduce deforestation and “lock the CO2 for the next 25 years,” marking “the biggest carbon sequestration anywhere in the world.”
  • Creating a distributed manufacturing process model to help source material locally and deliver it to corporations.
  • Eliminating 25% of crop stubble burning in the next five years and 90% in the subsequent three years.

Aware that part of the solution to pollution starts at home, Dhupar is also a strong advocate for adopting an environmentally conscious lifestyle. He drives electric vehicles, recycles all his plastic and is working to convert all his food waste into compost. He noted, “Say what you believe in and do what you say. If there is a disconnect between those two, there is no meaning in doing anything in life.”

Acknowledging his work, the United Nations (U.N.) named Dhupar the 2018 Young Champion of the Earth for Asia and the Pacific Region, and Forbes named him one of 2018’s “30 Under 30” social entrepreneurs.

The Future

Air and plastic pollution in India are severe problems that pose dire health threats to the population, particularly those living in poverty. However, Arpit Dhupar is working to ensure that his “interventions have an impact in the real world.” At the forefront of India’s solution to pollution, Dhupar and Dharaksha Ecosolutions are inspiring hope for a brighter and bluer future for India.

Jenny Boxall
Photo: Flickr