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Sri Lanka leaf plate maker entices tourist industry
04 May, 2008 07:58:30
By Charitha Fernando
May 04, 2008 (LBO) – A Sri Lankan entrepreneur is adding value to throw-away plant leaf matter by making bio-degradable plates and dishes which are starting to be used by the leisure industry.
A.U.S.K. Chandrasiri makes disposable plates, dishes, lunch boxes and cups from teak, banana, palm leaf and areca nut leaf sheaths known locally as the Kolapatha, replacing environmentally harmful plastic, polythene and Styrofoam containers.

The inspiration to turn out disposable plates and dishes came during a visit to India around eight years ago, he says.

"When I visited Taj Mahal, I saw a man selling small cups made out of three small leaves," Chandrasiri said.

"I was amazed when I saw it and that’s when it struck me that we could easily make similar plates and dishes in Sri Lanka since we have trees with larger leaves."

Chandrasiri says his leaf products are made from 100 percent bio degradable materials and is leak proof, non toxic and light in weight.

He now supplies local hotels and even exports to Maldivian resorts.

His eco friendly products are high in demand from nearby hotels that use them to serve salads, curries and deserts to foreign tourists.

"Our foreign guests admire these plates and dishes very much. They like to eat out of these locally made environmentally friendly plates and dishes," Lucian Joseph, Restaurant Manager, of Gimanhala, a hotel in Dambulla said.

"We serve bread and butter, salads and grilled fish and chicken in these leaf plates and trays," he said.

"Every hotel offers fruit juice in glasses but with Mr. Chandrasiri's eco friendly invention, we are now offering guests the welcome drink in cups made out of areca nut leaves," Joseph said.

"They are surprised as to how this cup is made from an areca nut leaf without any leaks.

"Some admire them so much that they take a few as souvenirs back with them," he said.

Chandrasiri says areca nut leaves are nothing new to Sri Lanka as they had been used by Sri Lanka' indigenous people called weddas since early days.

"The areca nut leaf is nothing new to Sri Lanka. Our ancestors had used areca nut leaves to wrap food to prevent it from spoiling," he said.

"Food such as meats, honey and fruits had been stored in areca nut leaf bags," he said.

"After using the areca nut leaves the weddas used to wash them and hang them over firewood hearths to make them germ-free," he said.

Chandrasiri is happy that his eco-products are fast becoming popular at parties, weddings, fast food joints, take away outlets and hotels because they are bio degradable, non toxic, light weight, and available in different sizes and shapes.

He is now hoping to aggressively market his products as eco friendly alternatives to non-degradable products like polythene, Styrofoam and plastics that are increasingly clogging drains and filling up mangrove swamps in the country.

He says the biggest challenge is competing with polythene and Styrofoam products made at a cheaper rate than his leaf plates and dishes.

Chandrasiri says it costs him around 50 percent more to make an environmentally friendly areca nut leaf lunch box as an alternative to the commonly used Styrofoam ones.

Right now leaves collected from nearby villagers and far away places have to be brought to Chandrasiri's workshop in Melsiripura, Dambulla to be converted in to plates and dishes.

The leaves are pressed into shape by an electrical machine and once the shape is obtained the remainder is cut away and the rough edges filed away.

"We have a problem with the cost of production because we have to collect areca leaves from far away areas like Kithulgala and Passara which adds on to transport cost," Chandrasiri said.

"Price is very important and I'm thinking of making more plates and dishes out of other leaves like teak, banana and Kanda which are abundantly available and easier to find from nearby areas," he said.

Chandrasiri is also hoping to outsource the production of areca nut leaf plates and dishes to cut down on transport and electricity costs.

"I'm also thinking of giving some of my machines to households that can easily find these areca nut leaves in their own villages," Chandrasiri said.

"Then the transport cost for me will come down and those households can also find an extra income by producing these plates and dishes for me as a cottage industry," he said.

"I'm determined overcome obstacles and develop my products because people who have seen my products have thanked me for turning out bio-degradable tableware," he said.

Chandrasiri says he is aiming to supply these eco friendly products to high end stores like Odel and Barefoot and even supermarket chains like Cargills Food City and Keells in the Sri Lanka.

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7. Sudo May 09
Meerkat, what you have not mentioned is the indirect cost to society that arises due to the extensive use of materials such as Styrofoam; clogged drains, litter, breeding of mosquitoes etc. The cost of all this is borne by all.

This is why non degradable or slow to degrade products such Styrofoam need to be taxed to ensure to deter usage and help finance the clean up. I do agree that the manufacturing process of these 'green' products have to be monitored to ensure that it is really green, but i believe that process is very much underway.

6. LD May 08
Biodegradable containers are extremely popular abroad. Cold drink containers are made from a Corn based bio-plastic called Prolactic Acid. Bagasse( sugar cane residue) is extensively used to make plates, cups and other type of disposable items in China.

Food containers made from Areca Leaf, by heat- moulding is widely available in India.

Mr. Chandrasiri should be congratulated for his efforts in promoting these products in Sri Lanka.

5. C.N.Gurusinghe May 08
Congratulations!!!!!!!!on your new invention hope you would be able to find a good export market....
4. meerkat May 06
Congratulations to Mr. Chandrasiri for trying to do his bit for the environment. But, one has to look at the broader picture. A similar project, making paper out of elephant dung, won the BBC world challenge. No one questioned the logic of making paper out of elephant dung when there is ample paddy straw available.

Also how much paper can one make from a meagre supply of elephant dung? How can one ramp up the production - by keeping more elephants? That would be commercial suicide, as the cost feeding an elephant would be, well, gigantic . How did the BBC get it so wrong?

The cost of production is high probably due to energy requirements. If any boiling is done to separate the cellulose, using either fire wood or kerosene, then the product is not as green as it appears to be.

Most in the energy industry are now beginning to realize that so called green products like ethanol and electric cars, are not as green as once thought.

Making plates and cups out of leaf cellulose is not new. Styrofoam has several advantages over paper and other cellulose based products.
1. Easy to mould to any shape
2. light weight
3. Water proof
4. Cheap to produce
5. Sterilizable
6. Heat insulating qualities

Because of all the above features , styrofoam and similar products are used extensively in the food industry.

Comments made by others in these columns indicate that that most people are ' emotional' than ' logical' .

3. Dharshan May 04
Absolutely brilliant idea. Sri Lankan ingenuity at its best. I hope he gets all the necessary help to scale up production.
2. Kanchana Weerakoon May 04
I am so glad to hear the news and congratulations to Mr. Chandrasiri for producing this. I am an environmnetalist who runs the organisation called Eco friendly Volunteers (ECO-V) and also I had somany samples of these Kolapath plates and other green plates I got from India too about 10 years ago.

I produced some Kolapath plates for our use in the organisational events and keep it with us to reuse. I was looking for somebody to produce these but no body wanted to invent the meshine. So i am so glad at last Chandrasiri is there. In fact i also like to promote his products and also i have a suggestion for him. He can also use the Godapara leaf which has become an invasive plant species in Ratnapura district and also can use Kottamba leaf which is becoming invasive I believe.

So if he can promote his business in other areas that would be a wonderful alternative for all these people who are using non biodegradable stuff unnecessarily. Thank you - Kanchana

1. John May 04
I hope Ceylon Trade ommisioners overseas will help Chndrasiri to export these products.