Advanced papermaking technology has made paper production cheaper. This has led to increased paper consumption and hence increased waste production. Billions of trees are cut and several more billion gallons of water are consumed by the paper & pulp industry every year. Only 40% paper produced gets recycled, while the rest disintegrates in landfills releasing methane. Apart from this, paper factories throughout the world release toxic pollutants like toluene, methanol, formaldehyde, etc. Despite the large-scale environmental impact of the paper industry, it is impossible to imagine a world without paper.
Realizing the deplorable situation of environmental degradation and the role of the paper industry in it, a team of four biotechnology students from Kalinga Institute of Industrial Technology (KIIT) in Odisha have come up with an innovative solution. Under the mentorship of Dr Vishakha Raina, these four students – Pratik Mahapatra, Anurag Kyal, Snehasis Patra and Shubham Debnath named ‘Team Papyrus Efficiencia’ initiated a summer project to tackle the problem of a water weed plant – Phragmites karka that infested the Chilika Lake, Odisha.
Phragmites karka is a tall wetlands grass that grows in shallow waters with a high above-ground biomass that blocks light for other plants. The team investigated the physical and chemical properties of this weed, and they decided the best use for it would be as fuel for a biogas plant. They tried tweaking many variables, but the results were less than satisfactory each time. They had hit a roadblock, which opened their minds to other alternatives.
It was a eureka moment that led the Papyrus Efficiencia team towards this path-breaking innovation. Phragmites had an exceptionally high cellulose content and hence could be used for making paper! They scaled down the industrial paper-making process and optimized it for the weed. The weed stems were ground into a paste and mixed with water. The slurry was treated in a bioreactor with specific biological enzymes. Further, enzymes were used for bleaching the slurry as well.
The production cost of this weed paper was one-third of the conventional paper production cost, while its quality was as good as that of conventional paper! Since this process involves no chemicals, it is a refreshingly green technology. Crucially, this Phragmites grass grows rapidly and gain the same density within one and a half months of harvesting. The quality that made it a menace for the Chilika lake helped in making this paper process a sustainable one! To top it, the Papyrus Efficiencia team found a good phytoremediation potential for this weed too, i.e. it can absorb organic pollutants and toxic heavy metals from the soil. So this innovation has killed not two, but many birds with one stone!
Before this novel technology, Phragmites grass in Indian lakes was treated as an unwanted threat without any beneficial use. The Papyrus Efficiencia team presented this at national platforms such as the India Innovation Initiative and the DST-Lockheed Martin India Innovation Growth Programme. They were also given an opportunity to go to Silicon Valley to interact with investors and innovators. Now, the Papyrus Efficiencia team have perfected this eco-friendly papermaking technology and applied for a patent as well.