Eco-friendly solution to the plastic problem

Nature Myanmar, a small company founded by environmentally minded entreprenuers Ko Min Kyaw Zin and Ko Than Zaw Oo, may have found the solution to replacing styrofoam and plastic: areca palm leaves.

Areca nuts, or commonly referred to as betel nuts, are fruit of the areca palm tree. Up till now, the leaves that fall have no use and are usually burnt.

“If we go into the jungle, it is common to place food on areca leaf to replace plates. So, we thought of whether we could commercially reuse Areca leaves like that,” said Ko Min Kyaw Zin, who is from Tanintharyi Region.

The impetus for him to produce plates, bowls and other utensils using the Areca leaf and other waste materials was a video on You Tube of people in India eating from banana leaves.

At around that time, he was also introduced to Ko Than Zaw Oo who was making use of areca leafs in Myeik. The pair hit it off and started Nature Myanmar.

In fact, Ko Than Zaw Oo, was already using areca leaves in his rice and curry shop in Myeik, after he realised plastic and styrofoam was causing pollution and blocking the drains. He was also greatly disappointed during the previous Thingyan holidays because people who donated food were using foam foam food boxes.

He decided that he would work to replace the use of styrofoam and plastic at all the coming festivals.

“I told myself I would try to use areca leaves as a substitute until foam food boxes are no longer used for the coming Tazaungdaing festival,” said Ko Than Zaw Oo.

So, starting Nature Myanmar was an easy decision for the pair. They started producing value-added products made from areca leaf in September 2018.

Starting production

Manual small-scale production is being carried out in Myeik and Tanintharyi Region, where electricity costs are still prohibitively high, while machine production is done in Yangon.

The raw materials for the company, quality areca palm leaves, are mainly obtained from Taninthayi, Ayeyawady, and Bago regions. The costs of the raw material varies depending on distance from the sources and transportation charges, Ko Than Zaw Oo said.

“Most people don’t want to collect areca leaves as they are often regarded as rubbish. So they have to be bought at a reasonable price so more people want to collect them. Most importantly, this business will thrive only if there are areca leaf collectors.”

The quality and cleanliness of the raw material is prioritised as they will be used to make food containers, said Ko Min Kyaw Zin.

“Usually areca leaves get mildewed, so we won’t accept those that have blackened. The leaves should be at least 29 centimetres or more in breadth, but length doesn’t matter,“ he said.

Now, the company’s areca leaf products are even being ordered from Taunggyi, Kalaw, Pyin Oo Lwin and Kyaiktiyo.

Most buyers are hotels, restaurants and coffee shops that are keen to reduce the amount of plastic waste they generate.

At present Ko Min Kyaw Zin is feeling quite satisfied with the company’s products. At the same time, he is trying to produce better quality products. Currently, a total 13 kinds of products are being manufacturing in different sizes, with the most popular products being coffee cups, cork-substitute takeaway boxes, plates, bowls and sauce plates.

The items are being sold at between K50 and K180 each. Due to the difficulty in obtaining the raw material and relative newness of the products and its still nascent market, the cost of the products could be considered high if compared to the traditional plastic variety.

However, the interest of customers has been greater than expected, and Nature Myanmar is now thinking about making new areca-based products, Ko Min Kyaw Zin said.

“When we did market research to find out whether people would pay for our products, we found their interest and acceptance was higher than expected. For now, we can’t even meet the market demand. This is an encouraging sign that more people realise the danger plastic poses to the environment.”

Good for the environment

More important than being profitable, the business can help the environment and hopefully even make it better. It also stands as proof that a business built on saving the planet can be a sound proposition.

Unlike cork and plastic waste, even if the company’s products are disposed of irresponsibly, they will benefit the environment as they are natural and will decompose in three or six months.

“In the end, the products just biodegrade and could be considered compost and still benefits the environment and the earth, unlike plastic that pollutes and enters the food chain,” Ko Min Kyaw Zin said.

“The leaves fall down down from trees naturally and most of the time, local farmers just burn them to get rid of them. Burning is also bad for the environment as it releases more carbon dioxide and smoke into the air. Now, they can sell the leaves to us and even get some extra income.”

Foams and plastic items not only pollute the environment but also damage health when they are exposed to heat but because of their prevalence and ease of use, people have not been able to stay away from them.

“Now, we can replace plastic containers and utensils with these areca leaf products. They can withstand heat and cold and people can even use them in microwave ovens,” he said.

Ko Min Kyaw Zin fully says the company takes steps to ensure the products are safe and hygienic enough to be used in the food industry to dispel any doubts people might have about using something made from a natural material as a food container.

The leaves are first cleansed with heat and pressure before being pressed into shape with a heat press. Then the product is disinfected with UV light before being packed for delivery. The products have been tested in various laboratories and are expected to have a shelf live of six months, Ko Min Kyaw Zin explained.

“We were initially paranoid and required that the leaves be cleaned thoroughly and disinfected twice as we were worried about traces of chemicals from the environment remaining on the raw material,” he said.

Entrepreneurial support

Despite a growing realization that small- and medium-sized companies are a major part of the country’s economy, Nature Myanmar has been operating on its own, with little support of any kind, says Ko Min Kyaw Zin .

“There are obstacles, as in any business effort. However, we have been able to overcome them so far without any support. I think every SME entrepreneur will face difficulties. One weakness in our country is that there is no strong product base. We just buy and use goods and products from other countries. We are trying to manufacture something and I think it would be good if the government provided some kind of formal support structure,” he added.

Many SME entrepreneurs are beginning to make inroads but still have a long way to go in Myanmar, and government support would only improve the situation, Ko Min Kyaw Zin feels.

“The market for our products isn’t very substantial yet and our profit margins are almost negligible, so it would be difficult for us to rely on our profit to grow the company,” he said.

“The company has introduced an innovative product that is good for the environment and I want to build a bigger factory, but some assistance in terms of technology and financing would be most welcome. Once we grow big enough we can help others interested in getting into this business.

“I am not doing this mere for financial reasons. I have other businesses so I am working on this for the good of the environment and I will be satisfied if we can substitute the use of plastic to some extent,” the entrepreneur said.

Source: Myanmar Times

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