Craving chhole bhature, your favourite winter snack? Or organizing a party at home and couldn’t be hassled with cleaning greasy plates? Maybe you are thinking of using tableware made of polystyrene? The deceptively clean white material has crept up on us everywhere—from the local chaat stall to fast-food restaurants serving juicy burgers. Polystyrene is now so commonly used in India, especially in the takeaway food industry, that people assume it is 100% safe. And yet this week, the mayor of New York has taken the bold step of eliminating polystyrene completely from the city, giving businesses six months to phase out the white hazard. Of course, the move will impact businesses, but the administration decided to give precedence to people’s health over money. It is estimated that the ban in New York City in July will put an end to 28,000 tonnes of non-biodegradable waste a year. India should be considering a similar move as well.

Polystyrene is basically a petroleum-based plastic. The product gained popularity because it is lightweight, offers good insulation that keeps products cold or hot, and keeps things safe during shipping without adding much weight. But chronic exposure to high levels of styrene can cause adverse health effects such as liver and nerve tissue damage. Styrene is classified as a possible human carcinogen by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and by the International Agency for Research on Cancer. It was way back in 1986 that EPA reported the polystyrene manufacturing process as the fifth largest creator of hazardous waste. Even the process of making polystyrene pollutes the air and creates large amounts of liquid and solid waste. Toxic chemicals leach out of these products into the food that they contain, especially when heated in a microwave oven.

Besides health issues, polystyrene is also a direct threat to our environment. Plastics are made of petroleum, a non-renewable resource that requires new fossil reserves to be extracted all the time. The unused polystyrene ends up as debris in our waterways, choking marine life in all its forms. While banning a product is easy, what are the solutions? Yash and Sachi Maniar, a brother-sister duo based in Mumbai, have come up with a green, clean start-up that sells 100% compostable tableware made from bagasse, a biodegradable sugar cane by-product. The idea for their start-up Shunya popped up in their heads at their favourite doughnut joint when eating out of a polystyrene plate that they realized would end up in the waste bin 5 minutes later.

The mission of Shunya, they say, is simply this: “Using a product for 5 minutes and trashing it for 500 years doesn’t make sense to us." And so Yash and Sachi came up with a range of products—disposable salad plates, compartment plates, bowls, dishes, meal trays and takeaway containers in various shapes and sizes. Their product line includes disposable birch wood cutlery and reusable bamboo straws. Besides being 100% biodegradable and compostable, products in the tableware range are also microwaveable, freezer-friendly, water-resistant and grease-proof. Shunya’s products can currently be bought online. For the retail market, the enterprise offers dinnerware in minimum packs of 50 while for wholesale buyers, the numbers vary from 500 to 2,000 depending on product size. While Shunya’s sugar cane products are machine-made, the bamboo straws are handcrafted by artisans from northern India and are ethically sourced.

“Sugar cane dinnerware is not only environment-safe, but also a health-safe option," says Yash Maniar. “We have seen flimsy polystyrene products that bend or crack while using. Sugar cane products are extremely sturdy to use."

So how easy is it to run a green start-up, especially given the low levels of awareness in India so far about the hazards of polystyrene?

“The response has been amazing so far. We have been successful with spreading awareness regarding the hazards of polystyrene products, and take orders from hotels, institutions and individuals. I wouldn’t categorize as easy or hard, but it certainly is exciting to be a green start-up. You get to do good and do what you like. We definitely have to be careful as to what we are promoting, what we are using and how we are impacting the earth," says Yash. It was his sister Sachi who designed the bamboo straws. She came up with the idea while travelling to Sikkim. The straws are handcrafted, reusable and 100% natural.

The duo is now looking to hone their entrepreneurial skills by being mentored by organizations like the Pollination Project and the DO School in order to run a self-sustaining business. As Yash and Sachi look at new ways to promote their green products, maybe the mayor of New York should pay them a visit. And India could do well by phasing out this white poison from its food markets.

Bahar Dutt is a conservation biologist and author of the book Green Wars.

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