Dr. Bio: A biopolymer made from starch to tackle the single-use plastic menace in India

This year 5 trillion plastic bags will be used. That’s 160,000 a second!

If you line them up one after the other, they will go around the world 7 times every hour and will cover an area twice the size of France. Don’t get too shocked yet, as we have only mentioned plastic bags so far and there’s more to the plastic menace than you can imagine.

Consider this: a global study points out that 79 per cent of the total plastics manufactured globally enter our environment as waste. While out of this, merely 9 per cent is recycled. Let’s now talk about us.

India’s contribution in plastic waste generation is humungous—3.3 million metric tonnes per year. Even this can be an underestimated figure, and its only growing. After taking its harmful effects into cognizance, it becomes apparent that plastic waste is a formidable environmental challenge which can’t be ignored for long.

While there are several ongoing worldwide initiatives that have been undertaken to tackle this problem, biopolymers have emerged as one of the sustainable and greener ways to replace single-use plastics.

“The real green and sustainable solution for the industry is to take a leap from recyclable plastic and move towards bio-compostable plastic which will dissolve in the soil to make a strong positive impact on plastic waste management as well as on plastic contribution in the landfills,”

says Mukul Sareen, Director of Business Development at the Hi-Tech Group.

Sareen’s firm is the first company in the country to manufacture a plant-based biopolymer – Dr. Bio – which can be used to replace single-use and multi-use plastic products such as bottles, straws, cups, disposable cutlery, polybags, etc. with bio-compostable plastic products. It has been approved by the Institute of Petrochemicals Technology (formerly known as—Central Institute of Petrochemicals Engineering & Technology).

At a time when India is trying to impose a prohibition on single-use plastic items by 2022, products made of Hi-Tech International’s Dr. Bio seem to be a viable option. Thus, uniquely positioning them to redefine and transform the plastic industry and steer it towards adopting sustainable bio-compostable plastics. Talking to SME Futures, Sareen answers some pertinent questions on Dr. Bio and elaborates on how they can act as an agent of change for curbing the manufacture and usage of single-use and multi-use plastic products.

Why do we need biopolymers?

Because India’s recycling is not effective, says Sareen.

Urban India generates around 62 million tons of municipal solid waste (MSW) annually, and this will reach 165 million tons in 2030. Out of this, only about 43 million tons of MSW is collected annually, out of which 31 million is dumped in landfill sites and just 11.9 million is treated.

Contrary to the composition of waste in western countries, the majority of India’s waste is organic which means that there is a tremendous opportunity to compost it. However, this waste ends up in the landfills and ends up polluting the land and ground water.

“The usual methods of recycling are not that effective. For example, there is a limit to recycling paper and every kg of paper uses 70 litres of water to recycle, which is counterproductive. Similarly, the process of recycling aluminium and recyclable plastic has high upfront capital costs and these processes themselves are unhygienic and unsafe. Even the recycled products are not of a very high quality,” he explains.

But using Dr. Bio products can bring about change and they can replace single-use plastic products.

“Our vision has always been to improve sustainability and to anticipate market trends and the future environmental regulations. Moreover, our commitment towards sustainability is oriented to reduce the greenhouse gases impact, minimise our dependence on fossil oil derivatives, promote the use of renewable energies and to reduce the plastic waste in the environment. Dr. Bio is another innovation from our stable, which is a testament to our vision and values. Our bio polymers are produced from corn starch in the agriculture rich region of Punjab and are available in 45 countries,” Sareen tells us.

At the same time, plastics cost the economy dearly. Most plastic packaging is used only once (single-use items) and 95 per cent of the value of the material is thus lost, with a global economic cost of US$80-$120 billion annually or Rs 10,000 crores annually. Which can be saved if biopolymers become common.

How will this take place?

Dr. Bio is India’s only compostable polymer, which means that plastic made from it will disintegrate after 12 weeks and biodegrade completely after six months.

“Which means that by then 90 per cent or more of the plastic would have been converted to CO2. The remainder is converted into water and biomass, neither of which contains any plastic. There should be no heavy metals or hazardous substances left behind,” he elaborates.

Explaining the science behind it, Sareen informs us that biopolymers replace fossil carbon in the production process with renewable carbon from biomass. “This is indispensable for a sustainable, climate-friendly plastics industry. The second advantage is that they are biodegradable (depending on the environment) and can therefore be a solution for plastics that cannot be collected. This results in the elimination of micro plastics from our environment,” he avers.

And that’s how products made from biopolymers are going to aid in curbing plastic pollution.

More than an innovation

Dr Bio compostable biopolymers are produced using the Hi-Tech Group’s proprietary F2F Process.

In this process, biodegradable polymer, natural polymers, organic and inorganic materials are reactively blended in the presence of proprietary plasticizers, compatibilizers and polymer modifiers. Which produces bio plastics and compostable polymer resins that exhibit environmentally friendly, sustainable, balanced and stable chemistry.

In addition to that, Dr. Bio polymer resins are available in various grades customised for a wide variety of applications such as film extrusion, extrusion coating, injection moulding and rigid, engineered plastics, paper like films, straw/pipe, filament extrusion etc.

“Dr. Bio biopolymer resins are engineered for ensuring sustainability, which is achieved through its high performance, its ease of processing, its low cost, and its versatility to use on conventional and contemporary extruders without any change in equipment specifications,” says Sareen.

Besides that, there’s more to the product, as it has many unique selling points.

One of its first USPs is its reasonable price. According to a marketplace site, it was listed as Rs 261 per kg for industrial use.

For manufacturing Dr. Bio, the only raw material needed is corn starch, which can be easily procured from farmers. “With our unique Farm to Polymer model, we are working closely with farmers to procure and secure our highly refined corn starch supplies and other essential biomass inputs. The supplies are assured even if we 10X our production capacity than what we have today,” asserts Sareen.

Moreover, the manufacturing process of Dr. Bio utilises renewable feedstocks such as corn, sugarcane, and algae instead of petroleum. “Thereby reducing global dependence on crude oil and lessening the impact on the climate,” says Sareen.

Besides that, India’s plastic consumption is soaring in an unprecedented manner. Taking note of it, the government is taking significant steps towards regulating plastic production and plastic waste in the country. In fact, the overall market environment remains challenging with low crude oil prices (an essential plastic manufacturing component) and some political support. This encourages the manufacture and demand for biopolymer based plastic products, believes Sareen.

“Government initiatives encourage the use of Dr. Bio. The CPCB has made mandatory guidelines to ensure that only the online certified manufacturers can sell the compostable products. The tests are conducted at the Government Laboratory at CIPET. However, only a few states like Maharashtra, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have enforced the mandatory usage of compostable bags in the country. The standard adopted by India is ISO/IS 17088 for the validation of polymers or for the bags that are compostable and specifies the procedures and requirements for the identification and labelling of plastics, and the products made from plastics, that are suitable for recovery through aerobic composting,” he comments.

It took years to develop Dr. Bio

Sareen tells us that there’s an interesting story behind Dr. Bio’s innovation.

He tells us that their company, which was founded by Jasbeer Sareen, his father in 1982, has always been in the production of traditional plastics. However, now managed by the two sons—Sidharth and Mukul Sareen (himself), the firm has gradually moved towards producing polymers, anti-corrosion products and many more such products.

Although they had a knack for innovation in the field of sustainability, they never actually thought about working on plant-based polymers initially. But it was a question asked by his son that sowed the seeds for Dr. Bio.

Sareen tells us, “Way back in 2015, my son once asked me about the United Nations sustainability goals and what we have been doing for the environment…This gave us some food for thought. And that was the time when my brother Sidharth and I started thinking about doing an innovation in the area of sustainability.”

Then in 2016, the idea for developing polymers, films and products that could be used in applications to replace traditional plastics, clicked for them, “We started R&D and development in 2016-17, and it started shaping up as Dr. Bio in 2018. It took around 3-4 years for the entire process starting from concept inception to product validations and approvals by government bodies,” recalls Sareen.

Today, besides manufacturing polymers and having 600 corrosion prevention products in its portfolio, Hi-Tech International in its Ludhiana unit among others is also manufacturing biopolymers. “We have a combined capacity of producing 6,000 tonnes of the product every year,” informs Sareen.

However, biopolymers are still a niche product

Despite the growing global environmental awareness, bioplastics currently account for only around 1 per cent or 3.8 million tonnes of the >360 million tons of plastics produced annually, but with an annual growth of 20-30 per cent.

But even though these figures are low, Sareen is optimistic about their potential in the market. He feels that due to the development of various forms of advanced biopolymers and materials, reduced costs, regulations and increased consumer awareness, the demand for them is rising.

“We have commercially launched Dr. Bio and some customers have accepted it. We are also exporting the biopolymers to Europe, the US, South America and South Africa. We have started pitching our product to e-commerce firms too and so far, we have got good traction,” he informs us.

According to him, Hi-Tech’s international partners located in 45 countries have seen great potential in their product and are willing to invest in India for this technology. It’s because of the product’s diversity, says Sareen.

The products offered by the company are used in different sectors and applications such as packaging, home textiles, appliances, plastic bottles, cards, apparel, fresh food packaging, folded cartons, mobile phone cases, service ware, lactides, polymers, polymer additives, nonwovens, adhesives, coatings, cosmetics, laptops, other durable goods, printing toners, and surfactants.

“Some companies have taken the initiative to not use traditional plastics in their supply chain. Dr. Bio polymers are gradually rising as an alternative to plastic. In fact, we have one such customer who is experimenting with the product for using it in the beverage industry,” he declares.

Expanding with Dr. Bio

Sareen tells us that they have already started mass production of Dr Bio and are finding various avenues to create value in the supply chain with numerous organisations. In fact, its adaptability on current plastics has also been established through rigorous trials that have been undertaken in the recent past.

On this Sareen comments, “This biopolymer has been found suitable to be used in the manufacturing of various products, where so far recyclable plastic was being used. Currently, we are prospecting the products to various B2B and consumer-based applications. We are also working on pilot lots with various multi-national corporations to incorporate this as an alternative technology or product stream as compared to what they have been using so far i.e., recycled plastics.”

The future of biopolymers looks bright

The world is moving towards sustainable practices and Dr. Bio is just a step towards it. Sareen firmly believes that their biopolymers are going to change the way people have been using plastic.

“The market outlook is extremely positive, and the future looks very bright for Dr. Bio. In our endeavour, the government policies which are being framed are also giving a great opportunity for Dr. Bio to grow in this domain. New laws are being made for minimum thickness which will make it more competitive for thinner gauge Dr. Bio films to be used,” says Sareen.

Going ahead, Sareen’s firm is researching on various forms of biopolymers, and they are currently working on making water-soluble plastics. Talking about their research, Sareen informs us that his team is also working on developing various moulds and dyes to make disposable cutlery. “We are also making bottles and paper cups that are being laminated with Dr. Bio. We have already developed polymers for paper cups and bottles. All of these products of ours are being used internationally as well,” he says.

Along with this, Hi-Tech is reaching out to more companies to make them aware about the advantages of biopolymers over traditional polymers. The company also aims to enter deeper into the existing markets. Additionally, Hi-Tech is endeavouring to reach out to more e-commerce companies and to the frozen foods sector by connecting with the people responsible for the packaging verticals of these companies. Going forward, the company also wants to build a solid and resilient supply chain by directly connecting with the corn farmers and starch manufacturers. 

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