What drives someone to be an entrepreneur? To build an institution, to drive change, innovate, disrupt, change the game, to leave a legacy... the list of reasons is long. However, for Rhea Mazumdar Singhal, it was a need to fix a pain point, plastic pollution.
Plastic, a material that lasts forever, well almost, is polluting the environment at a staggering rate. Studies have pointed to the harmful effects of plastic on human health. Toxic chemicals present in plastic are carcinogenic and are the cause of birth defects, endocrine diseases, infertility etc.
The adverse effects of plastic on the planet run deep. We all know the story of the whale that got washed onshore in Indonesia with more than 1,000 pieces of plastic inside it. Also, let's not forget our holy cows! There are disturbing reports of how much polythene waste has been recovered from their stomachs. And not to forget, the harmful impact of plastic on wildlife. Plastic menace is prevalent and we need to change that.
Rhea Mazumdar Singhal learnt this through her personal experience. "My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was 19 years old. I then decided to study pharmacology. I wanted to understand medicine. Then I worked at Pfizer, specifically in their oncology team and really understood the lifestyle changes that you need to make. For me that lifestyle change of not using plastics, less exposure to plastics started at that age," says Rhea.
In her bid to fight plastic pollution, Rhea launched Ecoware Solutions, India's first and largest sustainable packaging company. Ecoware manufactures a range of compostable tableware products like plates, cups, spoons, bowls and trays.
"I wanted to create something that was easy to dispose of and secondly, that was safe to eat out of, which is when I went on to found Ecoware in 2009," she says.
Ecoware products have no binders, no additives, it's the most natural thing that you could use and it's 100 percent compostable, Rhea adds.
"I insist on using the word compostable because when you put it in the soil, it turns into the soil in 90 days. It is certified by the United States Department of Agriculture," says Rhea.
Ecoware makes their products using plant biomass, the agri-waste that is left over once crops such as wheat, rice and sugarcane are processed. According to Rhea, Ecoware products can sustain a temperature range from -20°C to 180°C. "Our product can be used in the refrigerator, the freezer, the microwave. You can even bake in our products," she says.
Ecoware produces more than 1,000 tonnes of product in a year at its manufacturing unit in Greater Noida. The company has 28 distributors across the country. It is expecting to generate Rs 25 crore revenue this year.
The Sucess Story
However, Rhea points out that reaching this point has been tough. When she started her journey at the age of 27, she was a 'foreign-returned' girl who spoke raw Hindi. Changing the way distributors and retailers functioned was not an easy task. Plastic tableware products were omnipresent, the market was impenetrable and education regarding the harmful effects of plastic was limited.
"When I started, the first thing I did was I replicated what worked well in plastic. I went to Sadar Bazaar and Chandni Chowk, and I found the bowls, the plates, the containers that people used and I replicated that. That was 9 years ago, says Rhea.
Since then the company has expanded their portfolio to include takeaway packaging. Ecoware commissioned its first production unit in 2010, taking on-board everything she learnt and hit the ground running from there.
"Our first massive client that year was the Commonwealth Games, also known as the 'Green Games' at that time," Rhea adds.
Needs More Awareness
With time, research and education, more awareness has been created about the harmful effects of plastic among people across the globe. Ecoware has come a long way since 2010. Today their clients include quick service restaurants, the likes of Subway, Cinnabon, Haldirams, Jubilant and Chaayos. They retail at D-Mart and with various local and modern traders within Delhi NCR. Ecoware also exports to Sri Lanka and North America, which adds to its revenue stream.
However, Rhea looks visibly delighted to tell us that Indian Railways (IRCTC) is their 'feather in the cap' customer. She is looking forward to diversifying Ecoware's portfolio.
''We started with tableware but we have found out that we can use the same ingredient for multiple things and that's the vision forward," Rhea says.
However, she concedes that innovating new products to curb the use of plastic is not enough. "Education is very important at the grass root level. I work with some schools, it is important to encourage and educate the next generation about the harmful effects of plastic. Like children are taught not to burn firecrackers, they should be taught not to use plastic. To really create that wave of change we need to penetrate deeper, we need to go to tier-3 and tier-4 cities and we need a rigorous education drive," she adds.
Rhea has been selected as a Young Global Leader for the Class of 2018, by the World Economic Forum for the impact that her sustainable product business has created. "Though we are miles away from seeing plastic being eradicated, different stakeholders, governments and private players across the globe are working towards it," Rhea says, adding, "The government needs to increase the tax on plastic. The only reason we are more expensive than plastic is due to 12 percent GST on our products. We want an exemption."
Rhea's vision is to build a healthy, sustainable future by empowering people with knowledge to live more responsibly. But she also has her eyes set on scaling up Ecoware into a Rs 100 crore company in the next five years.