Nidhi Arora, a software professional who works in Delhi, dreads winters. She suffered a serious bout of asthma in 2017 due to the dense smog in Delhi. The air quality of the city had plunged to the lowest levels making it a gas chamber and doctors in Delhi declared a public health emergency.

The smog was attributed to the burning of agro-waste by farmers in North India. Every year around 15-20 million tonnes of crop stubble (mainly rice straw) is burnt in Punjab and Haryana. Agricultural burning produces large amounts of smoke in a short period of time. During the peak crop burning season in Punjab, the air pollution in Delhi is 20 times higher than the threshold for safe air as defined by the World Health Organization.

The burning of agricultural crop residue results in emission of greenhouse gases, air pollutants, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter and smoke, affecting the air quality. It is a health hazard, leading to diseases beyond affecting respiratory health.

In this situation, a concrete solution to safely dispose this waste is the need of the hour. And this need has given rise to innovations where entrepreneurs are working on technologies to find a more sustainable way to deal with the agricultural waste and aiming to give farmers a financial incentive to sell their crop waste which would perhaps encourage them not burn stubble anymore.

Biomass burning is a traditional agricultural practice followed by farmers. Common reasons include reducing the crop residue after harvesting, controlling crop diseases, weeds and pest, maintaining crop yields, disposing agricultural debris and clearing out vegetation out of irrigation canals.

“In northern India the burning of agro-waste is done twice a year. First after harvesting paddy crop and then after harvesting the wheat crop,” explained agricultural scientist SPS Beniwal, formerly with the GB Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Uttarakhand. “The stubble and straw left on the ground after mechanical harvesting of paddy crop through combine harvester is burnt in the field due to a limited time window left between harvesting and threshing of paddy crop, the field preparation and planting of wheat crop.”

In the past, paddy stubble was manually cleaned and collected by farmers. However, due to an intensive cropping pattern, farmers find burning an easy solution.

“Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana had designed an equipment that would cut the standing paddy stubble into small pieces which would be easily incorporated into the soil and wouldn’t cause any problem in field preparation,” said Beniwal. “However, the cost is a deterrent as even with a subsidy, farmers would need to pay Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000 for the machine.”

Three entrepreneurs are now testing technologies that can turn the agricultural fibres into reusable and biodegradable products. If the farmers get financial incentive to sell their crop biomass, they may not burn the stubble, thereby reducing one of the components that add to the North Indian smog every winter.

Converting crops to plates

BIO-LUTIONS India, a Hamburg-based company with operations in Ramanagara, near Bengaluru, buys agricultural waste from farmers and makes biodegradable packaging and tableware from it. The patented technology converts agro-waste into self-binding fibres by simply churning them with water in huge machines. The end products are sustainable packaging and tableware that takes only three months to biodegrade.

This offers a solution to two environmental concerns – crop-waste disposal and plastic pollution, while providing the farmers an additional source of income. BIO-LUTIONS’ pilot ran from early-2017 to mid-2018 during which they tested their packaging with Big Basket, an online groceries marketplace, by providing small quantities of packaging for fruits and vegetables.

“This helped us understand the market and receive feedback on our products,” said Kurian Mathew, chief executive officer of the company. “In India, at present, we are producing tableware that is going through a distribution line, plus we are in talks with a couple of cafe chains for using our tableware instead of plastic or plastic laminated paper plates that are currently being used. The quantity of raw material being used per year by us is 2,000 to 2,500 tonnes.”

The mission is to create practical options to curb the use of plastic that is choking the planet.

Tableware made from agricultural biomass. Photo credit: BIO-LUTIONS
Tableware made from agricultural biomass. Photo credit: BIO-LUTIONS

BIO-LUTIONS is working with Vikasana, an NGO working for sustainable agriculture, since last year, for the provision of agro-waste. “We have identified 3,000 farmers from whom we collect the sugarcane and banana waste at a collection centre in Mandya, Karnataka,” said Maheshchandra Guru, director of Vikasana.

Farmers burn the agro-waste after harvesting sugarcane because it takes long to decompose. Vikasana started a campaign for sustainable agriculture and advised farmers against burning and to let it decompose naturally.

Working on the project, Vikasana collects 60%-70% of trash from farmers and pays about Rs 500 per tonne of residue collected. Per acre of agricultural land generates about four to five tonnes of waste and farmers earn about Rs 1,500-Rs 2,000 additional income each month. They plan to expand the farmer base with an increase in demand for biomass.

Crops to fabric

Kriya Labs provides a solution to convert per year 15-20 million tonnes of crop stubble that mainly comprises of rice straw which doesn’t have any market as compared to other forms of agro-waste like wheat straw and bagasse.

They convert rice straw into pulp using their own process. This pulp can be used as an intermediary product for industries such as paper (and its derivatives), bioethanol (biofuels in general), fabrics and other specialty chemicals like cellulose acetate, carboxymethyl cellulose. The process is environment friendly. The quality if pulp depends on its end application and can be altered accordingly.

Explaining the business model, Ankur Kumar, CEO of Kriya Labs, said, “We plan to help mid-income farmers with income capacity, to set up a pulp manufacturing unit. They can use their own straw and buy straw from small farmers who cannot install a pulp manufacturing unit. A small farmer can be paid Rs. 5000 per acre, to collect and supply the straw, adequately compensating him by providing a source of income and thus removing the lack of infrastructure in collection.”

Currently at pilot stage, they are producing pulp samples and tableware for trial runs. Within 2-3 months, the process will be optimised and become commercial.

“Kriya Labs team has been working on technology to convert agro-watse into pulp for last four years,” said Professor PVM Rao from the Department of Design, Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi. “The innovation has a high potential to reduce pollution caused due to burning of crops.”

A Punjab farmer in his field. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
A Punjab farmer in his field. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

Substitute for fossil fuels

Farm2Energy, a startup from Punjab founded by Sukhbir Singh Dhaliwal, is helping farmers by baling the stubble from fields free of cost. Founded in July 2016, the firm provides biomass supply solutions to a range of clients from farmers to landowners and biomass users.

The company processes paddy straw, corn stover, sugar cane trash and wheat straw and supplies it to the biofuels, biopower and bio-based industries through integrated supply systems. In addition, it also helps farmers in managing and utilising biomass.

Preet Chandhoke, the company’s chief innovation officer, said, “Stubble burning has always been a part of life. Educating the farmer is important to prevent burning and providing a sustainable solution to get the fields ready is the idea behind the initiative.”

Exploring the diverse ways to dispose stubble, he said, “We are planning to send 5000 tonnes of stubble to Bhuj, Gujarat as fodder for animals.”

Farm2Energy also has three products bio-pellets, biochar and torrefied pallets. Biopellets (made from sugarcane trash and paddy straw) is a sustainable solution to replace the conventional fossil fuels and have diverse uses in commercial and industrial sectors. Biochar improves the productivity of soil resulting in a higher yield.

The third product, torrefied pellets, produced from torrefied biomass can be a substitute for coal. Torrefecation is a process of thermal decomposition done without oxygen, at between 200 degrees Celsius to 320 degrees Celsius. This makes biomass dense and improves the burn quality.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.