In India, where one third of its billion-strong population live in urban areas, the colossal issue of urban waste threatens to take over liveable spaces. As gigantic landfills expire and overflow – some, like in Mumbai, are the size of Central Park in New York and as dated as 90 years old – reducing the amount of disposables that go into the trash is an urgent endeavour.
For Rhea Singhal, this has become her life mission. Born in India and raised in Dubai and London, Rhea moved back to Delhi at age 27 together with her husband Nishant, leaving her job in marketing and sales at Pfizer, London. Soon after, Rhea founded Ecoware Solutions Limited. Seven years on, Rhea now runs Ecoware together with Nishant. Ecoware has become the market leader of compostable tableware in India, whose clients include the five-star Oberoi Hotels & Resorts, Indian snack giant Haldiram and tea stores Chai Point, as well as distributors throughout North, West and South India.
“When I got back to India, I realized how much plastic packaging people were using for all their food – and how unhealthy it was – for both people and the environment. I knew this something I wanted to change,” Rhea told us.
We met Rhea and her husband Nishant recently, on a field trip to understand Ecoware’s positive social and environmental impact, and to assist with growing their business and impact. As millennial entrepreneurs, Rhea and Nishant represent a growing segment of the young and educated population. They are conscious of social and environmental causes and are driving solutions for sustainable development within their communities and nation.
“I believe that people can eat healthy while being responsible towards the environment. Our vision was to create compostable tableware that is sturdy, aesthetic and safe to use – and for this to eventually phase out conventional disposable tableware that worsens our waste problem,” Rhea shared with us.
The Magic of Compostable Tableware
Theoretically, almost everything is biodegradable – a banana peel takes 2 to 5 weeks while a plastic beverage bottle can take up to 500 years to decompose. Compostable, however, means that if you put it back into the soil or household compost, it will degrade in a maximum of 90 days.
Back in 2009, the idea of compostable tableware was almost unheard of. After much research and development, coupled with stringent quality control processes, Ecoware designed a product that is durable, free of pesticides or chemical residues, and caters to the various cuisines in India.
Ecoware’s products are made from bagasse, a natural by-product of sugarcane. Bagasse is completely biodegradable and compostable, leaving no toxins in soil or groundwater after its decomposition. Shujog’s Impact Assessment calculated that Ecoware’s operations will save over 7,000 trees, displace more than 600 tons of plastic and reduce 2800 tons of carbon emission every year. In addition, without binders, additives, coatings or fillers, Ecoware products are devoid of any health risks associated with plastic and paper products.
Ecoware’s positive impact goes beyond its products. At Ecoware’s manufacturing unit in Uttar Pradesh, 110 low-income individuals are employed for the production chain. This offers them stable livelihoods, as well as access to reliable pension and insurance policies.
We visited the factory and spoke with the workers there. Together with Shujog, we interviewed the workers and found that 34% of previously unbanked employees opened their first bank account, thanks to Ecoware. All of the factory workers reported increased financial security.
“I like working with Ecoware for three reasons – it is a good product that does not harm the Earth; workers and managers work together like a family; we receive higher and more stable wages,” Arun Singh Thakur, a supervisor working in Ecoware’s factory told us.
Redefining Food Packaging
With a range of high-quality products, Ecoware is ambitious about changing the way food packaging is done in India. The team is looking forward to becoming the one-stop shop for all compostable packaging, across the entire value chain of food packaging.
“We want to redefine food packaging. We want to make Ecoware a household brand for food packaging that is synonymous with being safe and eco-friendly, similar to what Dettol means to hygiene or Google means to online search,” Rhea shared. Her confidence and ambition is matched by the beaming smiles of her team of proud workers.
With a USDA certificate, Ecoware has built up a customer base that includes the offices of multinational corporations, as well as to quick service restaurants. This puts Ecoware in a great position to build their brand equity and increase direct sales to consumers.
Already the market leader in India, EcoWare is now looking to quadruple their production capacity by the following year, so that they can increase their geographical reach within India. Outside of India, Ecoware has already established its presence in countries such as UAE and Canada. It currently exports to local distributors who then distribute its products to multinational quick service restaurant brands.
Last year, India’s disposable food packaging demand reached US$1.02 billion, and is forecasted to grow to US$2.05 billion by 2020. With this upward trend, Ecoware is looking to capture higher market share and scale their positive impact across India and beyond.
Zen Bin, Corporate Finance
Bao Tran, Summer Associate, Research and Assessments
Photo Credit: www.ecoware.in