From fresh buds to festive decor, what is the environmental cost of flowers
Lounge examines the business of flowers during the festive season and how floral waste is re-purposed
Vibrant yellow marigolds and milky white chrysanthemums are a fixture at pujas around Diwali. Their aesthetic utility, in fact, goes beyond the altar in the form of rangoli and lavish floral arrangements at doorways. The modern Diwali décor edit has expanded to gerberas, carnations, orchids, roses, lilliums and the entire spectrum of imported exotic blooms.
“Growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 25% during 2009-16, the Indian flower industry is currently experiencing tremendous expansion," says Hariharan Subramaniam, CEO, La Fleur, a brand that retails premium bouquets through select supermarket chains such as Godrej Nature’s Basket.
Reflecting this national obsession, the market is expected to grow to ₹329 billion by 2022, according to National Horticulture Board estimates. Flowers such as jasmine and marigold have been part of traditional rituals but he points out that Western cultural influences now drive demand through the year, from Valentine’s Day to Mother’s Day, and occasions like anniversaries, birthdays and house-warming parties. There’s even a Rose Day in the run-up to Valentine’s Day.
“Most floral exports comprise roses. Currently, India imports a lot of flowers. The biggest markets are Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad and Kolkata, with tier-2 cities rapidly emerging as robust markets. Wedding season witnesses the highest demand," says Rownak Gutgutia, managing director of Florance Flora. The Bengaluru-based floriculture company supplies young plants for commercial-cut flowers nationwide.
Imported flowers like peonies, premium lilies and hydrangeas are much sought after at upscale weddings. Blooms like the dahlia, iris, daisy, alstroemeria, tulip, statice and aster are popular with the upscale urban demographic, says Subramaniam.
A walk through Mumbai’s busiest flower market in Dadar, spread over a kilometre and known locally as Phool Gully, sets alarm bells ringing—with flower stems securely wrapped in cellophane and flowers past their prime strewn on the road. The air smells of fresh and rotting flowers. The road is lined with vendors divided by gender and profile—women sell garlands, jasmine gajras and mini rose bouquets in wicker baskets and men do brisk business with crates of indigenous marigold. Concrete shops stock exotic blooms and their entrances are crowded with large plastic buckets holding sunflowers, lilies and attention-grabbing pineapple plant blooms or ornamental cabbage flowers. The most prominent are voluptuous lillium buds. Most of these are wrapped in plastic packaging labelled Warwick Flowers or Windsor Flora, indicating they have travelled long distances. There is a carbon cost to such flowers, given that they are imported from Holland, South America, New Zealand and Thailand.
Flowers are biodegradable, yes. But there is a fine balance, as too many flowers in water bodies will eventually kill the fish.
Technically, floral waste refers to blooms discarded after single use from sources such as temples, wedding venues, premium hotels, corporate offices, unsold floral inventory and home waste bins.
“Floral waste in water bodies decompose, thereby depleting the dissolved oxygen. It deprives aquatic life of essential resources for their survival," explains Parimala Shivaprasad, an eco-entrepreneur with a PhD in chemical engineering. She adds that decomposition affects the ecosystem by causing algal blooms and eutrophication of lakes. Algal blooms refer to the rapid growth of aquatic algae. The harmful kind produce bio-toxins which cause fish as well as human sickness. Eutrophication is the process of permeating a water body with nutrients that leads to excessive growth of aquatic plants. Consequently, there’s an imbalance in the dissolved oxygen. This gives lie to the popular belief that flowers are biodegradable and therefore cause minimum damage.
What happens to the soil? It goes without saying that floral waste deposits can become a breeding ground for germs, but soil disintegration starts with floriculture. Bittu Sahgal, an environment activist and founder of Sanctuary Nature Foundation, says: “There is a dark side to floriculture. Toxic chemicals and pesticides, for instance, are used with impunity, because controls applicable to the food industry just do not apply to them. If anything, the problem of pesticide and chemical application in greenhouses is greater, because soil loses nutrients and health very fast and demands supplements. Greenhouses are more energy intensive."
In India, temporary polyhouses for floriculture have become popular because the cost of construction is significantly lower than glass structures. These have a polythene cover propped on a steel frame. Rare orchids, gerbera, Dutch roses, carnations, anthurium and lilies are commonly cultivated in a controlled environment.
Sahgal explains the environmental cost further. “As flowers have a very short shelf life and blemished blooms don’t sell, a host of chemicals, including methyl bromide, which damages the ozone layer, are indiscriminately used by the global floriculture industry. To stay competitive, developing countries are increasingly being induced to cultivate flowers for export at the cost of their own water and health security," he says.
Commercial-cut flowers now have fresh competition from artificial plastic blooms imported from China (estimated at ₹148 crore in 2018-19), according to an article in The Hindu in August—the use of synthetic variations has dented the business of flowers in India. Gutgutia suggests that restricting or banning them will be immensely “helpful".
Kanpur-based Phool was started two and a half years ago by Ankit Agarwal and Karan Rastogi with the aim of reusing floral waste. Its primary catchment areas are temples in Bithoor and Panki in Uttar Pradesh. “In India, about 8 million tonnes of temple flowers are dumped into rivers every year," says Apurv Misal, marketing and sales head of Phool.
It is a challenge to dissuade worshippers. Agarwal and Rastogi reuse temple floral waste to create incense sticks, incense cones and vermicompost for home gardens that can be bought on their website Phool.co. They have recruited about 80 local women and partnered with wedding and event planners to collect floral waste across Kanpur. They believe people have become more aware of the environmental cost of flowers; a few temples in Kanpur prohibit worshippers from offering flowers.
They now plan to expand their operations to other cities.
In Hyderabad, a similar social enterprise, Holy Waste, is run by Maya Vivek and Minal Dalmia. Since starting operations in November, they have expanded their floral waste collection from temples to flower vendors and market zones. A statement on their website Oorvi.org reads: “We are now keeping away 200 kilograms of floral waste from landfills and lakes every day."
Their products range from natural fertilizers, potting mix, incense cones and sticks to soaps and dyes. They are crowdsourcing more ideas to repurpose floral waste so you can pitch in too.
In Mumbai, the social enterprise Green Wave processes floral waste. Delhi has multiple initiatives launched by NGOs. In Bengaluru, more than a few temples have installed composting machines for organic waste. While waste management of flowers at a macro level demands intervention with well-defined government policies, individual initiatives are making a difference at the micro level.
While repurposing temple floral waste for incense sticks is common, using it for extracting fabric dyes is being explored in Bodh Gaya, Bihar. Praveen Chauhan, an alumnus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, runs a design and social enterprise brand called Matr. He works with Khadi artisans and rural women to create garments and accessories. Last year, the team dyed 20,000-25,000 metres of fabric with colours extracted from flowers.
In 2017, he joined hands with Kathy Williams, a natural dye expert from Australia, to further the cause of sustainable clothing. “We have signed an MoU with the board of management of Mahabodhi temple in Gaya to gather all their marigold to convert them into natural dye. In 2018, Praveen and I ran our first natural dye workshop for the women from the villages. They embraced their newfound skill and that opportunity. It was a magical 10 days of not only turning waste into something beautiful, but also creating employment," says Williams, founder of Australia-based sustainable label Because of Nature, which uses Khadi sourced from Bihar.
Chauhan and Williams’ combined venture is called Happy Hands Project. They are now in the process of scaling up, with a focus on quality, not mass production. Their aim is to employ skilled artisans in a healthy, safe and happy environment—by focusing on these, they hope to be able to invest time and energy in research and develop more applications for floral waste.
“While the response to our work (Happy Hands Project) has been overwhelming and we showcased at the Lakmé Fashion Week (in 2017), the biggest challenge is that the public in general lacks awareness and the value of using floral waste. Natural dyes have a healing effect on the largest organ of our body, i.e. the skin, and leave no negative residue," says Williams. She firmly believes there’s a huge education opportunity in learning how to work in harmony with nature.
This is also the opportunity that Shivaprasad has tapped into. Her research at the University of Bath, UK, involves extracting essential oils from floral waste for medicines, fragrances and flavouring agents. “It has been tested at laboratory scale and now I am looking at scaling up the process. Floral waste is considered carbon-neutral as flowers are not cultivated for the purpose of using them as raw materials, thus saving natural resources," she explains. Her entrepreneurial venture, Retra, which means fragrance in Sanskrit, will begin operations early next year.
So, what comes to mind when we think of flowers? Who grows them? Are the farmers paid fair wages? What is the carbon footprint of imported flowers? Are fragrant blooms laced with chemicals that extend their lifespan? Where do wilted flowers go?
It’s time to do more than just stop and smell the roses.
Jhelum Biswas Bose's book 'Phool Proof' lists ingenious ways of repurposing flowers:
Don’t throw away marigold flowers. Dry them in the sun, crush the petals, and mix with coconut oil and sugar or salt to use as a natural body scrub
Create a hair rinse with leftover ‘mogra’ flowers. Soak ‘mogra’ flowers in hot water. This can be used as a fragrant hair rinse
Dry-roast rose petals with whole or powdered garam masala to add an interesting twist to kebabs and biryanis.