Fire & Termite-Resistant Pallets From Coconut Husk That Save 200 Million Trees A Year

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In the tropical landscape of peninsular India, coconut trees form a vital resource in everyday life. From extensive culinary use to generating a wide range of household items as by-products, coconut is virtually indispensable in Southern India.

Consequently, a heap of coconut husks and shells on the roadside – blocking the drainage system, packing up the landfills, or polluting the air when burnt – is not a very rare sight. This is the ugly part of the story. Although biodegradable, coconut husks end up as useless, despite having a horde of potential uses unknown to the urban population. Even in rural areas, coconut residues are finding lesser and lesser usage as fuel or otherwise, courtesy the switch to modernised lifestyle. While India is yet to identify and address this problem, a company in Amsterdam has found a perfect sustainable solution, worthy of replication in coconut-rich nations of South-East Asia. Dutch start-up CocoPallet produces biologically processed transportation pallets from coconut husk. Not only are these 100% organic, greener, cheaper and more compact than wood or plastic pallets, but they are also indirectly preventing the felling of around 200 million trees per year in the Netherlands. Founder Michiel Vos has improvised on the technology originally developed by Wageningen University researchers and created a world-class product with equal finesse and sturdiness, that is boosting a circular economy.

CocoPallet
85% of the coconut husks go to waste

An ancient Indonesian technique

The idea of CocoPallet actually has its root in a primitive Indonesian procedure, practised by only a handful. Jan Van Dam, a plant-fibre scientist at Wageningen University chanced upon this superb technology when a man from Indonesia presented a prototype coconut pallet to him. “Rock hard, wood-like board material from coconut husk? That was new to me,” he shared with Dutch daily ‘de Volkskrant’. Traditionally made from shredded coconut husk processed in steam, the almost forgotten technique was revived by Jan Van Dam and his team in a modern set up.

“We looked for improvements and came up with a technique where the ground up husk is pressed together at a high temperature,” Van Dam explains. The natural lignin in the coir melts and forms the binding material, making it resistant to termites – which is a major problem with wood.

Soon afterwards, he launched a pilot project in the Philippines, which failed for a number of local reasons. The revolutionary technology would have faded into oblivion once again had Michiel Vos not met with Jan Van Dam. “Why don’t you use coconut husk, he asked?…. And anywhere in Asia, it is found almost for free on the side of the road,” recalls Vos about his interaction with Van Dam.

CocoPallet
Coconut has a wide variety of uses

Advantages of CocoPallets

Michiel Vos wasted no time in amplifying the idea into a successful business model and the benefits slowly unfolded over the years. Rarely one comes across a sustainable product with all prominent pros and no cons, but CocoPallet can be called one such product, both environmentally and economically. Made entirely from discarded coconut husk in Asian countries, it negates the use of any toxic and expensive pesticide treatment for the trees like methyl bromide fumigation. Estimates show that they are using almost around 50% of coconut waste.

Thanks to the natural binder lignin, there is no need for any synthetic resins as used in wood pallets. The product is as strong as wood or plastic pallets, supporting a load of up to 3000 kgs. The worn out pallet can be ground into biomass and used as a green fertiliser for agriculture. That is how CocoPallet is supporting a circular economy in itself, asserts founder Vos. 

CocoPallet
One CocoPallet can support up to 3000 kgs

Saving trees & cutting costs

“Asia produces more than a billion pallets every year. They require softwood, which does not grow in the tropics, thus, it is imported from Canada, New Zealand or Eastern Europe on a large scale,” Vos shares with de Volkskrant. This is synonymous to exporting entire forests (200 million trees per year for 1.7 billion wood pallets) to Asia, incurring an enormous freight cost.

CocoPallet is producing the pallets in Sumatra, Indonesia from local plantations, eliminating the whole burden of transport cost. Already popular among Asian exporters, the company is also creating extra income for local farmers.

CocoPallet
CocoPeople at work

Global organisations like Accenture and Bloomberg have duly recognised and awarded the innovation. The founder hopes to expand his business further to rid other Asian countries of their coconut waste, in the most eco-friendly way possible.

Also Read: Toilets That Make Gardens From Humanure: An Eco-Friendly Future Can Come From Your Toilet

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MyStory: “Two Months After I Joined IIT For My PhD I Was Diagnosed With TB”

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A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.  

My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.

About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss. 

My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.

However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.

Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.

As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.

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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed. 

This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.

What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation. 

Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.

Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds. 

Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma? 

First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.

Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB? 

The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment. 

Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.

A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.

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