A mask that grows into a tree: Why this idea from Mangaluru has become a pandemic hit

One of the lasting images of the pandemic is surgical masks discarded everywhere — from markets to pristine beaches. Now, a company wants to spin this into something beneficial for the environment.

Paper Seed Co, a social enterprise from the outskirts of Mangaluru in southern Karnataka, has come up with a face mask that will not only protect people from the virus, but when discarded, will bloom into a plant. The innovative eco-friendly idea has struck a chord with the public and has created a huge buzz online.

Founder Nitin Vas said cotton masks are actually made from recycled rags. “The outer cover is made from cotton plup utilising various scrap materials collected from the garment industry, and the inner linings are made from soft cotton cloth. They are thick enough, and effective to prevent infection,” he explained to over telephone.

The company, which has been making various recycled and plant seed goods since 2017, started experimenting with masks when the pandemic hit. “Masks are essential for humans but they are also creating problems for other species. We see them lying on the streets and ending up in landfills, but forget that it also ends up in rivers and oceans creating irreparable damage to the environment and aquatic life,” the 36-year-old said, explaining the idea behind his project.

Although made from cotton, his masks are single-use only. Once used, one simply needs to throw them in the soil, water it a little and in a few days, it will hopefully grow into a plant. ALSO READ |

As the company already had the knowledge of making paper embedded with plant seeds, they used it to take it a step forward and implement it in cotton materials. But there is a cost to being environmentally conscious. At Rs 25 per piece, these single-use masks are not cheap, but we have to consider that each of the masks is handmade under a “laborious process”.

“A product is truly eco-friendly only when it doesn’t involve bigger industrial setups. These are not machine-made and hence, we can’t roll out hundreds of products as they do in factories,” Vas explained. “The process to create pulp and make sheets itself takes up around eight hours after which it takes another 12 hours to dry. Then each mask is cut out by hand using stencils and stitched. So, I would say, it’s fairly priced,” he added.

For Vas, however, the product and the company are much bigger than just making eco-friendly goods as his project generates employment in and around Pakshikere hamlet of Dakshina Kannada district. “I believe in Gandhian philosophy of Swadeshi movement, where the core principle is to come up with sustainable solutions,” he said. “Ours is not a business model to generate profit but to find an ecological solution for a better future, where we train our village folks and harness the power of talented youths.”

Before the pandemic hit, the organisation had nearly 300 people working on different products. Now, the number is not even 10 per cent. “Because it has seeds, our product can’t be stored for a very long time. When lockdown happened we had to discard huge batches of seed paper which we failed to deliver,” Vas said.

So, despite being overwhelmed by orders, Vas doesn’t want to increase his exposure or risk. “Our setup collapsed last year during the pandemic. Now, even if I’m getting orders to create one lakh masks, I can’t make it. I have enough volunteers registered with the trust to make it but what if I employ them and by the time we finish making it, it can’t be delivered to the party, it’ll again all lead up being a waste, and I can’t take that risk anymore and put the villagers’ earnings at danger,” he explained. He has been engaging only with local and regional clients and smaller orders up to 3,000 masks.

His dream is to build a Paper Seed village with a larger workshop. But it is far from easy. “I have the land, we have also started building a few of the workshops, but more funds are needed to start a proper setup,” he said. “Although we have got offers from businesses we don’t want to enter the trap of getting into a profit-making business because then our core value will be compromised,” he said adding that they are open to taking up financial opportunities if it aligns with their ideology keeping the villagers in the centre.

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