This Mumbai-based startup has rolled out eco-friendly bamboo substitutes in its fight against plastic
India is in the midst of a plastic crisis. The country generates about 25,940 tonnes of plastic waste every day, according to a report published by the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) in 2017. Nearly half of all that plastic is single use, which is used in packaging.
The accumulation of plastic waste has widespread negative effects on the environment. Improper disposal of plastics can cause toxic chemicals to leach into the soil, and open burning of plastic waste, a common practice in India, emits harmful gases. Plastics also endangers animal and marine life. The waters adjoining Mumbai, Kerala, and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands are among the worst polluted in the world, a TERI report said. Plastic litter that washes up on these shores usually tends to be single-use bottles, bags, and disposable cutlery.
After witnessing the destruction that plastic waste wreaked on beaches and marine life, four engineers - Aditya Ruia, Anuj Ruia, Akshay Varma, and Punit Batra - started Beco in 2017 in Mumbai. The startup manufactures eco-friendly and cost-efficient products such as trash bags, kitchen towels, and tissue rolls that provide consumers with the flexibility that single-use items provide, but at the same time do not come at a cost to the environment.
Brothers Anuj and Aditya Ruia used to participate in beach cleanups in Mumbai regularly. Aditya knew Punit Batra from BITS Pilani, while Akshay Varma and Aditya were childhood friends. When the group used to participate in beach cleanups in Chowpatti and Juhu, they were stunned to see the amount of waste that accumulated on the beaches.
“We were overwhelmed by the never-ending stretches of waste on these beaches, and that’s when we got talking. Initially, we didn’t give too much thought to this. But Aditya was relentless. He got in touch with Akshay and soon we began our journey to create Beco,” says Punit Batra, founding member and marketing manager at the company.
Akshay, who majored in material sciences, pitched the key idea that the company’s products should be made from bamboo pulp and corn starch-derived polymers.
Bamboo grows well in tropical and warm temperate latitudes, according to a UN report from 2018. In addition, compared to most tree plantations, bamboo grows fairly rapidly and utilises less water as well.
Beco spent a year doing research, registered itself in 2018 and only began operations five months ago. The company claims it is currently the only brand in India manufacturing disposables and tissue paper products from bamboo polymer, which is quickly emerging as a versatile, eco-friendly alternative to plastic.
Initially Beco wanted to focus on tissue paper and garbage bags, but after consulting with its mentors, the company decided to use bamboo to produce kitchen towels, toilet rolls, and toothpicks as well.
The team also noticed that its products were also functioning a lot better than its non-compostable, non-biodegradable rivals. Some of its competitors include Origami, Paeseo, and Johnson & Johnson.
Beco began hitting farmers markets and exhibitions and found that supply could not keep up with demand.
“Our products were selling like hotcakes,” Punit says.
A pretty package
Beco uses Moso bamboo, which mainly grows in China as well as in Maharashtra and North East India. This type of bamboo can be used to make reusable bamboo cloth, which is super absorbent and 100-percent compostable. The bamboo kitchen towel can be washed and used up to 100 times, unlike a generic microfibre cloth, which is non-biodegradable.
But Beco, which is currently bootstrapped, decided to take it a step further.
Having seen the damage that plastic packaging did to the environment, the company decided not to use plastic to package its products. Beco uses craft and recycled paper instead, which Punit says was part of their plan from the beginning.
The company claims that it is the only brand in this range that uses recycled and craft paper for packaging, which makes every component of the product biodegradable and eco-friendly.
“Every day and in every way, we hold ourselves to the highest standard. Because we believe that whatever we use on ourselves matters," says Aditya.
Market and revenues
The company is already selling its products in over 1,500 stores in Mumbai, and can also be found on ecommerce sites such as Amazon and Nykaa. By next March, Beco expects to be in 5,000-6,000 stores and expand across Maharashtra and Gujarat to enter Pune, Rajkot, and Ahmedabad.
“Our main objective was to establish ourselves as a retail-first brand, and we have been clocking sales of Rs 2.5 lakh per month. We have now ventured into B2B and institutional sales and we should touch between Rs 4.8 lakh and Rs 5 lakh in sales this month,” Punit says.
Beco is targeting what it calls “modern trade” as an avenue for growth in established stores such as D-Mart and Nature’s Basket, which have a large number of outlets across India. The company claims it is breaking even, and if its plan to tie-up with modern trade outlets pans out, it expects to be profitable in the next five months.
The company, which worked to increase brand and product awareness in shops, found it challenging to ensure the competitive pricing of its products. The company aims to be accessible and affordable to everybody.
Unlike organic products in the market that sell for more than double or triple the price than their non-organic counterparts, Beco has priced most of its products within the existing range, excluding a few items.
“People will always go for cheaper products, which is not good for the environment at all,” Punit says.
Beco also says it has a lot of science and hard data to back the compostability, biodegradability, and organic quality of its products, unlike a number of its competitors.
The future of eco-friendly disposables
Beco, which is in talks with investors to raise funding, has also charted out an ambitious growth plan. It is developing new products, including biodegradable diapers and sanitary napkins, and is planning to launch its fully compostable and biodegradable garbage bags made from corn starch polymers in June this year.
However, the impact that Beco has had on the environment cannot be understated. The company’s website states that it has contributed to removing 120 tonnes of plastic waste effectively from the garbage dumps, and has reduced over 75 percent of their carbon footprint. But change needs to come from the consumers.
Punit believes that India needs more civic awareness, which will translate into making smarter choices. Government-led efforts, including the plastic ban, has forced people into choosing eco-friendly products. However, these moves need to be enforced more stringently, he says.
“We can do our bit by making smart choices and simply using better alternatives. The plastic ban is inevitable and will catch on in most cities soon. We realise that disposables cannot be eliminated, and the future of this industry is bright and on the rise,” he adds.