This Kerala-based geologist is making edible & biodegradable cutlery to replace single-use plastic

This Kerala-based geologist is making edible & biodegradable cutlery to replace single-use plastic

His green startup Thooshan makes plates, bowls, and straws from natural wheat bran and rice bran, which makes the cutlery edible. It can be decomposed to make organic manure or used as animal feed.

This Kerala-based geologist is making edible & biodegradable cutlery to replace single-use plastic 30stades sustainable green startup

Geology, Railway Territorial Army, banking, insurance and biodegradable cutlery – it is the course Vinayakumar Balakrishnan’s life has taken after he completed his post-graduation in Geology in 1988 from the University of Kerala. The turning point, however, came in 2013 when he saw an edible and biodegradable plate at an exhibition in Dubai.

“I enquired about the plate and wrote to the Polish company, which was its manufacturer. I said there is a lot of waste in India that could be used for making biodegradable plates. But I never heard back from them,” recalls Vinayakumar, who was then working as the CEO of Island Life Assurance Company in Mauritius.

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Today, he is the Founder and CEO of Kerala-based Thooshan.

Thooshan is a green startup that produces biodegradable cutlery to counter the harmful impact of single-use plastic plates and spoons that end up in landfills across the world.

Food waste to counter plastics

Having spent a large part of his life working in leadership roles in the banking and insurance sector, Vinayakumar decided to return to India in 2013 and began research on food waste that could be used to make biodegradable plates.

“I researched on using rice bran, corn, wheat bran and husk. I found that rice bran has oil content so the plate will get spoiled. I wanted a trusted partner for my work and approached the Council of Scientific & Industrial Research (CSIR)’s National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology (NIIST) in Thiruvananthapuram,” he recalls.

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“They agreed to work on it. I funded the project from my income, gave the machinery and in about 1.5 years, they developed the technology to make biodegradable plates with wheat bran,” he adds.

While the plates are edible, they need not necessarily be eaten. They can be used as cattle feed or fish feed or simply decomposed to make manure. Pic: Thooshan 30stades
While the plates are edible, they need not necessarily be eaten. They can be used as cattle feed or fish feed or simply decomposed to make manure. Pic: Thooshan

The next challenge, however, was to make the machinery that could churn out the plates. “I got the various parts developed through eight factories. The fully-integrated robotic plant is 100 percent Made in India,” he says.

“The Polish team took 17 years to develop its biodegradable plate and it took me four years to do it,” says Vinayakumar.

He realised that one, the exact amount of bran needs to be put into the machinery for a plate to be made. A gram extra or less could lead to the plate not getting made. Two, the moisture content and quality of bran differed from state to state and gave different results.

“There are seven parameters and only when all of them are met can a plate be made in the machine. It wasn’t easy. It took us one year to fine-tune it and we could make the first plate only after about four years of working from the scratch,” he says.

Thooshan has been incubated at three prestigious institutes – Indigram Labs Foundation, Delhi; Kerala Agriculture University and IIT Kanpur. “We are the second company in the world to have this technology,” Vinayakumar says.

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The plates are made using wheat bran, an agricultural waste, procured from mills in Kerala. Pic: Thooshan 30stades
The plates are made using wheat bran, an agricultural waste, procured from mills in Kerala. Pic: Thooshan

On August 17, 2021, Thoosahan went live. Vinayakumar’s wife Indira also works with him at Thooshan, a name derived from ‘thooshanila’ or banana leaf used to serve food in Kerala and other states of India.

Thooshan makes plates, bowls, and straws from natural wheat bran and rice bran, which makes the cutlery edible. “But you don’t necessarily have to eat them,” he says.

The cutlery can be decomposed into organic manure or can be used as cattle feed, fish feed or poultry feed. The idea is to be sustainable and environment-friendly.

According to estimates, producing just one pound of plastic cutlery can take up to 78 litres of water and release 2.5 lbs (1.1 kg) of carbon-di-oxide. This plastic is difficult to recycle and ends up choking animals and polluting water bodies and soil.

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The making of edible cutlery

Biodegradable cutlery is a safer alternative. For its eco-friendly products, Thooshan has received the United Nations Development Program award under Green Innovation Fund, supported by Kerala Start-up Mission and Haritha Kerala Mission 2021. It also received the RKVY RAFTAAR grant instituted by the Union Ministry of Agriculture, 2021, apart from the Idea grant by the Kerala Start-up mission and Innovation grant by the Kerala start-up mission 2021.

Currently, Thooshan makes 1,000 plates per day at its fully-automatic robotic plant in Angamaly, Kerala.

The dishware is microwave-safe, has a long shelf life and is fungus and bacteria-resistant. Thooshan sources bran from mills in Kerala. “About 7,000 tons of bran is produced in Kerala every month after processing crops. It is mostly used as cattle feed every month. We procure it from mills,” he says.

Wheat bran contains gluten and when it is pressed inside the machine, gluten acts as a binding agent.

The plates are available in two sizes – dinner plates and side plates. Thooshan also makes biodegradable straws using broken rice.

This broken rice is procured from mills where paddy is converted to rice. This waste is otherwise used to make beer. The straws from wasted rice flour are made through contract manufacturing. “We procure one lakh straws per day,” Vinayakumar says.

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Vijayakumar explaining about Thooshan plates to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Pic: Thooshan 30stades
Vijayakumar explaining about Thooshan plates to Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan. Pic: Thooshan

The products are available on Amazon and through the Thooshan website. “We have distributors in each district in Kerala. And there is another distributor in Bengaluru. We want to increase the manufacturing capacity before expanding to other markets,” he says.

While the price is Rs 20 per plate, the bulk rate is only Rs 10 and the manufacturing cost is around Rs 7 per plate.

The straws can be ordered in bulk at just a rupee per piece and otherwise cost Rs5 per straw. “We are selling straws in Europe as well. Exports of plates can start only after we second manufacturing plant comes up,” says Vinayakumar.

He has invested Rs 1.5 crore in Thooshan so far.

The startup is planning to set up its new plate-making plant in the next six months. “We are targeting to manufacture one lakh plates per day to meet the growing demand,” he says.

Also in the pipeline are spoons, forks, cups, knives and containers which will be launched in August this year.

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“We will use injection moulding technology to make these items at a separate plant. These will have bran mixed with bioplastic. They will not be edible but biodegradable.”

Bioplastic is a substance made from organic biomass sources, like sugarcane, unlike conventional plastics made from petroleum. “We have received all lab reports and are now ready for manufacturing. A separate unit in Kerala is getting finalized for production of spoons etc,” he says.

Vinayakumar has been receiving a lot of inquiries about setting up a plant in Russia, Wales and Oman. “We are in discussion. I am looking for scaling up as our idea is to make it a very affordable product. That’s the only way to get rid of single-use plastic cutlery,” he adds.

(Rashmi Pratap is a Mumbai-based journalist specialising in business, financial and socio-economic reporting)

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One thought on “This Kerala-based geologist is making edible & biodegradable cutlery to replace single-use plastic

  1. Dr. P. Venu Babu says:

    Biodegradable bags and containers in the true sense are the need of the hour. They should be able to hold moisture without getting soggy for atleast 48 hours. It helps people handling the household garbage and environment.

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