We met Muraleedharan (Murali for short), a manufacturer based on Kannur, Kerala for eco-friendly disposable natural leaf plates, to discuss about his solution to the world’s plastic problem. He uses palm leaves to create everyday products. These products are already replacing harmful single-use plastic in many countries.
Murali’s current range of products include cutleries, disposable plate, glass and trays made from Areca leaf. They are crafted using shed leaves of the Areca palm. No trees are damaged in anyway in the process.
One large Areca leaf is made of several smaller leaves that grow out of a single stem. Once the larger leaves are collected, they are separated into smaller leaves. They are then put in moulds and pressed together to create plates, vessels, trays, cutleries are other products. Areca is fully biodegradable and eco-friendly.
Muraleedharan spent a number of years overseas before coming back to India with an intention of starting a business that helps to reduce the use of plastic. One day looking out of the window of his living room, he noticed all the fallen areca leaves which were going to waste. With a bit of research, he realized the potential of Areca as a plastic replacement.
We sat down with Murali on a warm afternoon in North Malabar to discuss his products, his future plans and more.
Can you tell us a little bit about your startup days?
We started in 2007. It was very initial days in India and even Kerala for the awareness of the amount of damage plastic does to our environment. We started overseas export in 2017, until then we were only serving the local market.
How did people react to Areca products in the initially?
For centuries, Areca leaves were used to make different things in Kerala. Especially handheld fans. Handmade Areca plates were also used before the plastic disposable plates became common. All I had done is to use appropriate machinery to take the traditional product and make it more durable.
I provided areca plates when there are festivals in temples around my area. When food is served during the festival, my plates are being used instead of plastic. By touching, feeling and experiencing the products, people have become more aware of it.
I knew the use of plastic is above threshold level across the globe. Even though people are aware of their harmful effects, they seem to believe there’s no alternative and they continue to use it. Once they became aware of Areca, the mentality has slowly but surely shifted.
Who are the main users of Areca products in the world?
Areca products are normally sort after by people from Europe. Especially Scandinavia and other parts of northern Europe. We have a lot of buyers from the United States also. Taiwan is also one of the important markets for us. Areca users are of a certain mindset and awareness. They feel responsibility towards planet in the actions they take.
Can you tell us a bit about the production process?
I put together very simple operation using two machines. I put together the machines myself also. By sourcing different individual parts from across India. It’s a very simple operation. Production is done mainly based on the requirement. Most of our plates are done on daily basis for fixed vendors.
What is your quality control process?
We pride ourselves in the quality of our products. We have never had feedback from any of the customers because of our stringent QC process. Our in-house team checks all aspects of the final products which include correct thickness, quality of the edges, any moisture content (which may attract fungus and other types of damages). Once the check is done, the products are safely packed in a dry environment. For export products, extra checks are conducted by respective agencies.
How do you reach new markets?
Before Covid, we used to participate in trade fairs and exhibitions around the world. We also participated in expos conducted by Kerala and India governments, specially for eco products. We made most of our connections through that. Since Covid, we have to rely on agents and other services offered online.
What are the different initiatives created by the government to support the eco industry?
Kerala is a pioneer when it comes to eco initiatives in India. The first state to ban single use plastic in India. There have been many initiatives by the government and private sector to increase awareness among the general public.
And in the recent Panjayat elections, there was a mandate to make at least 1 of the voting booths completely eco-friendly. We were approached by the local government body and were delighted to take up the project. We used Areca and similar materials to make every single object in the booth completely eco-friendly. It was highly successful and attracted many people.
In your opinion, how does your product contribute to wellness ?
Wellness is for all the living beings be it humans, animals, plants or microbes. For me, sustainable living is a route to wellness which means using products that don’t harm ourselves or nature. The products that I make are completely natural, no chemicals are used in any stage of the manufacturing process. Which makes it a healthy choice to serve food.
What are your future plans ?
I am working on a plan to make food items for cattle out of Areca plant. We are in discussion with few people regarding this. This will benefit cattle and farmers alike as it is very high in nutrition and extremely cheap to produce.
Apart from Areca, I am also researching on other plants and trees from which we can make completely bio-degradable products. Once the COVID situation relaxes we will start the work of that as well.