Project Nawah: Swapping plastic with bamboo

Think about all the plastic products you have used in your entire life: toothbrushes, toothpaste tubes, shampoo bottles, duct tape, packaging products, cups. There is a 50% chance they still exist today exactly as you disposed them.

Plastic—once hailed as a “wonder material” for its versatility, durability, and affordability—has become one of Nature’s biggest headaches today.

“Plastic is stubborn, and the world is sinking under a mountain of undegraded plastic waste,” says Amartya Parmar. Amartya is the president of Enactus Dayal Singh College, a student group from Delhi University that is deeply perturbed by plastic accumulation and its devastating effects on the environment and health.

Plastic waste management in 2015
Out of the 37 million tons of plastic waste generated in 2015, a staggering 20.34 million tons—55%—was simply discarded.

‘Stubborn’—and dangerous

Natural processes find it difficult to break down plastic’s tightly wound, chain-like structure. Plastic deposited in landfills remain there for years; UV light breaks them down and turns them into microplastics and nanoplastics—extremely tiny plastic particles—that leaches into the soil and water resources. Improperly disposed plastic gets carried into river systems and oceans, where it remains floating, deposits as sediments, or converts into micro and nanoplastics. Being so tiny, micro and nanoplastics can also get dispersed in the air from land and water.

Large plastic waste cause external injuries, but micro and nanoplastics are devastating to life forms from the inside. From the soil, water and air, the miniscule plastic particles enter the food chain: plants draw them up through their roots, grazers chew on them with their meals and fish ingest or even breathe them in from the water. The particles persist in internal organs as they are too small to be completely filtered out, slowly snuffing the life out of organisms.

Humans are also in danger…

Micro and nanoplastics enter our body through our food and drink. In fact, plastic items that you are still using can release microplastics when they fragment under friction, heat or light; you are inhaling the particles floating in your home/office as you read this.

Micro and nanoplastics are suspected to cause many diseases: cancer, respiratory diseases, liver toxicity, and circulatory and nervous system disorders. This is an active area of research. (It’s a strange twist of karma, isn’t it?)

So, what do we do?

Project Nawah explores potential solution…

“Since disposal is a problem, we felt that the best way to tackle this menace would be to avoid using it,” elaborates Amartya. “We looked for an alternative.”

Project Nawah logo

What material can match plastic’s versatility while also being environment-friendly?

“Our research led us to bamboo,” he reveals.

Thus, Project Nawah was born. The project, named after the Arabic term for “environment”, looks to replace plastic with bamboo, particularly in consumer products and handicrafts.

Bamboo vs Plastic: Why bamboo is the perfect replacement for plastic

Bamboo is an ideal replacement for plastic in consumer products and handicrafts. A comparison of plastic products vs. bamboo products during its life-cycle reveals that bamboo is better for the environment on almost every count.

Bamboo vs. Plastic: A comparison chart
Bamboo vs. Plastic: A comparison chart

But environment-friendliness alone will not to cut it. No one will buy an environment-friendly product if it does not perform its function as effectively as its unsustainable alternatives. What is the point of using a bamboo toothbrush if it is 10X more expensive, breaks if you put too much pressure on it or cannot clean your teeth as effectively?

Bamboo compares well against plastic on these counts as well.

Plastic products vs bamboo products

The supply and demand of bamboo

Traditional demand for bamboo has come from the paper and construction industry. However, bamboo-based consumer products (toothbrushes, baskets, pen stands) and handicrafts is a growing niche as conscious consumers look for environment-friendly alternatives. For example, Grand View Research, Inc estimates the bamboo toothbrush market alone to reach USD 48.3 Million by 2027.

Country governments with rich bamboo resources have been promoting bamboo to meet this demand. For example, the Indian government is promoting bamboo cultivation through policy initiatives like the National Bamboo Mission. The Indian Forests Act, 1927, was also amended to exclude bamboo outside forest area as a tree, enabling fringe communities to harvest it. 

For Project Nawah, Enactus DSC undertook surveys and interviews around New Delhi to gauge market demand and market perception. Especially in New Delhi, where citizens can see plastic waste churning along the Yamuna River, the demand for an alternative like bamboo is rising.

Implementing Project Nawah

With the alternative identified and its traction established, the members of Enactus DSC began to implement the project in their signature style: social entrepreneurship.

They discovered that since bamboo is cheap, easy to work with and doesn’t require large manufacturing units, making bamboo consumer products and handicrafts is ideal for cottage industries and local job creation. So, Enactus DSC, partnering with Alina Foundation, implemented this project by empowering marginalized women and providing them with an alternative livelihood.

The project worked with 18 women in Dallupura, New Delhi. “The women were homemakers, and their families relied on seasonal labor to make ends meet. They saw an opportunity to improve their economic status and support their families better, and eagerly signed up,” says Amartya.

Over the course of 3 months, Trainers from Centre for Indian Bamboo Resource and Technology (CIBART) came every week to train the participants in making bamboo products—an art called bamboo carving. Once they were ready with the skills of bamboo carving, the women were trained on running a business—financial management, business planning and brand building.

“We financed the project with funds generated from other past and current projects,” he shares proudly.

Moving forward…

The group of women will be incorporated under a brand (called “Nawah”) to take this business forward. At the moment, the group sell their products in fairs and exhibitions around Delhi and has received many positive responses for their products.

Enactus DSC is also in touch with pharmacies, restaurants, hotels and dentists to provide a stable market for Nawah. Once the brand is incorporated, Enactus DSC plans to link it with e-commerce platforms like Amazon, to reach a bigger market.

The 18 women, now experienced in the art of bamboo carving, have taken it upon themselves to share their knowledge with other women in their community. The community in Dallupura is brimming with enthusiasm, as more and more women join this movement. “We may need to get bigger premises, and a bigger manufacturing unit as the group grows,” shares Amartya happily.

The students are also eager to grow the initiative. Amartya says, “We want to make more collaborations like this, scale operations and touch more lives. We want to increase the standard of living and financial status of the underprivileged. Our goal is also to eradicate plastic and replace it with bamboo, and if this project succeeds, we plan to bring a whole different array of products.”

How can you help?

Bamboo is an underutilized resource with a tremendous potential to address the environmental challenges of 21st century. It is well-positioned to shape an economy that provides long-term ecological and social benefits.

If you want to plan for a year, then plant seeds…
If you want to plan for 10 years, then plant trees…
But…if you want to make plans for 100 years, then plant bamboo.

An old Chinese proverb.

The onus is now on you—the consumers—to make this “green gold” become mainstream.

If you choose bamboo, together we can reduce ecological destruction and stop poisoning animals and ourselves.

You can take your inspiration from Nawah.

The blog post has been written in collaboration with Abhishek Gawande.

This blog post is part of public awareness campaigns of Enactus DSC. If you’re interested to know more about this initiative, or support Nawah by buying its products, contact Enactus DSC at enactusds[at]gmail[dot]com.

Author: Saurab Babu

Usually found sitting with a good book, nibbling on a piece of dark chocolate. Always ready for a good story.

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