Plastic from jowar? Yes, it’s real!

An eco-friendly option from one of the most water-efficient crops will soon be a reality
A high biomass sorghum variety developed for use in biofuel production.  Pic credit: ICRISAT
A high biomass sorghum variety developed for use in biofuel production. Pic credit: ICRISAT

HYDERABAD:Think of jowar (sorghum) and the first thing that comes to mind is Telangana’s famous jonna rotte (jowar roti), but there’s a lot more to this dryland crop than just grain and fodder. New varieties developed by scientists at ICRISAT, Patancheru, have an array of uses – from syrup to ethanol and biofuel. Now waiting to be added to this list is plastic. On June 5 (World Environment Day) this year, a call was given to ‘Beat Plastic Pollution’ and this has triggered an interest in better alternatives.

Eco-friendly, non-carcinogenic and biodegradable alternatives such as bioplastic cutlery and tableware are increasingly preferred despite the higher pricing. Some are edible (made from flour); while some are from plant material and sugarcane bagasse (crushed stalk) are microwave and freezer safe. Sugarcane bagasse products are already available in the market, but there’s a more eco-friendly option waiting to take off – plastic from jowar bagasse.

Jowar is more water-efficient than sugarcane
Jowar needs nine times less water than sugarcane per crop and the advantage gets tripled as sugarcane produces one crop per year, while three crops of jowar can be grown in a year. ICRISAT principal scientist, Dr A Ashok Kumar, says, “It is the most efficient crop in terms of biomass production per unit of time, water and fertiliser.” Jowar bagasse contains similar levels of cellulose as sugarcane bagasse, therefore it has a good prospect as raw material for pulp products. It is compostable and studies have been conducted on safe disposal and simultaneous production of value-added byproducts.

Multiple benefit for sugar mills and farmers
Dr Kumar says that a ‘big mill test’ conducted in Gujarat showed that existing machinery in sugar mills can be used without changing a nut or bolt for ethanol production from jowar. Since it is an all-season crop, the harvests can be timed to match the sugarcane off-season when crushing mills lie idle. “In one of the field trials on new jowar breeds in Telangana more than 10,000 jowar farmers were linked with ethanol distilleries and decentralised crushing units. Farmers recorded a grain yield of 2.5 tons per hectare and the sale of stalks to the mills fetched a higher price,” he says.

Part of a bigger eco-friendly measure
Apart from ethanol distilleries, 12 biofuel plants proposed by the government of India have plans to use jowar as alternative biofuel feedstock for ethanol production in India. This translates to bagasse that has to be put to good use. Yes, bioplastic is the need of the hour.

— Jemima Mandapati
(The writer is Senior Communication Officer, Strategic Marketing and Communication, ICRISAT)

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