Published: 19th July 2020
This English professor's straws made from coconut leaves are a huge hit. Here's why
Why must one make the best use of elements available in the environment? Professor Saji Varghese explains how he is making straws from coconut leaves and exporting it to ten different countries
When we drink juice or lemonade, we use those colourful plastic straws and throw them around leading to pollution in the environment. But Professor Saji Varghese has a solution to this long pending problem. He has been making these straws using coconut leaves for three years and exporting it to 10 other countries including UK, USA, UAE, Belgium etc. Now you can imagine how good those straws are. Though Professor Saji works in the English department and Science is nowhere related to his subject of teaching, he keeps innovating and new things using natural substances like coconut leaves, shell, coir etc. He says, "I was always interested in grassroots innovation and problem-solving where we can impact social causes or rural communities through innovation. In 2017, I came across this dry coconut leaf in our Christ University campus. We know that dry coconut leaves are brittle and crumbled. If you soak it in water for a few minutes, then the leaf becomes soft and it becomes easy to experiment with it."
What professor learnt during his experiment with a dry coconut leaf was when the leaf is cleansed properly, a thin layer of wax comes on its surface. Professor Saji explains, "It is a healthy wax and gives an antifungal character to the leaf. The leaf has all the characteristics to meet the requirements of a straw. If you have observed those paper straws, they are actually dipped in bee wax to give a hydrophobic nature. But here, the leaf has its own natural wax. Some of the MSc students also took this leaf to do research work at the Central Plantation Crops Research Institute in Kasargod. They found out that the leaf is safe to use as a straw. In fact it contains all kinds of antioxidants."
Professor Saji Varghese
While the characters and safety standards were checked, Professor had to experiment with the design of the straw. Therefore, he took to rolling this leaf in a single layer to make it a straw. "I was not satisfied with the outcome because some of the leaves had a hole on their surface and we ended up wasting 40 per cent of the leaves. Therefore, I spent more than 3,000 hours researching the design of the straw and finally came up with the finished product in 2018. If you observe the picture of the straw, then you will understand that it is a completely finished product and not a crude product. It is a double-layered straw, while the inside part of it has a spiral layer there is a slug on the outer part of the straw. The surface of both these outer and inner surface has coated wax layers (a natural one) and the liquid moves through it. We use a food-grade adhesive within the two layers which were imported from the USA."
Professor Saji was using semi-manual methods to produce these straws but as the demands for this product increased, he introduced machines to produce them. Therefore, he set up two outlets at Madurai in Tamilnadu and Kasargod in Kerala and hired women from rural areas to produce these straws. However, the production capacity was still low. "The best part of my work is getting support from the college where I have been working. A few students from the Mass Communication department shot an interview and video of Professor Saji and coconut straws. It went viral and he started getting a lot of enquiries. In the past six months, I am focussing on the technology to increase the production of these straws. Because it is a good idea to set up a rural enterprise. From one coconut leaf, one can make 150 to 300 straws. My idea is to start this model for women in rural areas of Kerala, Karnataka, Tamilnadu, Andhra Pradesh and Goa so that they get employment," adding "We will deploy the machines in these outlets and start our production. Our machines are also designed in house and they all are patented."
This professor cum entrepreneur who has been selling the straws under the brand called Sunbird Straws and a lot of companies have come forward to support his enterprise. "We will be expanding our outlets soon to other places once the pandemic comes down," he concludes.