The Zero-plate revolution: Where you can eat, throw, compost, and grow

With brother-sister duo Yash and Sachi Maniar’s Shunya Alternatives’ disposable and 100% compostable tableware, your next party can be completely waste-free.


As soon as Yash Maniar suggests a chat over coffee, I realise that this is going to be no ordinary meeting. During the course of the evening, there will be several times when I am acutely aware of the number of tissues I use, the material of the cups I drink from and how much cutlery accompanies my plate of pasta. So, what is it about Yash that makes me so mindful of my actions? Yash Maniar (24) and his sister, Sachi (27) are the founders of Shunya Alternatives, a Mumbai based start-up that sells 100% compostable  tableware made from bagasse, a biodegradable sugarcane by-product. Although the siblings have always been conscious of their food and product choices and their impact on the environment, the spark for Shunya was lit when they were at their favourite doughnut joint, eating out of a Styrofoam plate that they trashed barely five minutes later, almost clean, save a smear of chocolate. This was followed by a visit to the beach only to find that the garbage from a grounded ship prevented them from entering the water. This got the two really thinking. “Styrofoam is even worse than plastic as a number of harmful and highly polluting petroleum derivatives like benzene are used in its manufacture. Moreover, since Styrofoam is rarely recycled in India, it often ends up in dumps where it piles up and never deteriorates,” says Sachi, who has made films on Mumbai’s consumption patterns and waste problems and visited the city’s landfills on multiple occasions.

Sachi and Yash Maniar

Sachi and Yash Maniar

The name ‘Shunya’ is derived from the Sanskrit word for nothingness. The duo have tried to incorporate the principles of shunyata, represented by zero or a circle into the company’s philosophy and its offerings. “For us, living in an earth friendly manner means making choices that do not affect or harm the earth’s resources, its inhabitants or the environment in any way. It means respecting all that we have received and minimizing the trace of our existence and activities,” Sachi explains. After weighing the existing tableware and food container options available in India, they found an absence of alternatives that were simultaneously eco-friendly, affordable, easily available and aesthetically designed. Everywhere, you see traditional kullads and ‘cutting glasses’ have given way to plastic cups and patravalis and donnas made of jackfruit or areca leaves are replaced by Styrofoam plates because plastic and Styrofoam are much cheaper and more convenient to obtain. ‘In the past two decades, the consumption of disposable products has  increased tremendously and India generates more than 15,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day. Every year there is 15% per annum increase in plastic consumption’, says Yash concernedly, echoing the warnings of the Supreme Court of India.

Scene at a landfill

Scene at a landfill

Armed with a dream to fill the gap in the availability of eco-friendly, non-polluting, disposable tableware in India, Yash’s degree in Business Management and stint at the Centre for Science and Environment  gave him the skills he needed to apply to the prestigious DO School, where he got all the support he needed to turn his ideas into action that was practical and implementable in India. During the incubation period and over many rounds of rigorous interviews and intense pitches to global experts, Yash was able to hone his entrepreneurial skills and learn about best practices for product design and packaging material. “We are truly overwhelmed by the support and mentorship friends and family have given us,” says Yash as he talks about how the team of two began bootstrapping their venture. Recently, Shunya has received a $1000 Pay It Forward loan from The Pollination Project, an organisation that gives seed grants to social change projects across the world. As part of the nature of the loan, on attaining self-sufficiency, Shunya is required to support similar projects.

IMG_7057

Plates made of sugarcane fibre

We zeroed in on sugarcane fibre after experimenting with other materials like palm leaves and areca leaves. “Palm leaves are prone to fungus, especially in a humid environment like Bombay’s,” explains Yash. “Besides, sugarcane which is widely grown across the country generates a large amount of waste that feeds upcycling ventures like ours,” adds Sachi. Shunya Alternatives currently offers a range of disposable salad plates, compartment plates, bowls, dishes, meal trays and takeaway containers in various shapes and sizes. Their product line also includes disposable birch wood cutlery and reusable bamboo straws. Products made with sugarcane fibre are sturdier than other disposable products. Besides being 100% biodegradable and compostable, products in the tableware range are also microwavable, freezer friendly, water-resistant and grease proof.

Shunya Alternatives 1

Shunya’s products

Shunya’s products can currently be bought online. For the retail market, the enterprise offers dinnerware in minimum packs of 50 while for wholesale buyers, the numbers vary from 500 to 2,000 depending on product size. Prices range from Rs. 125 for a 50 piece pack of six inch round plates to Rs. 800 for a similar number of one litre clampshells. While Shunya’s sugarcane products are machine made, the bamboo straws are handcrafted by artisans from North India and are ethically sourced. “Benefitting small artisans and indigenous craft communities and using their traditional knowledge of local materials  was an important part of our business plan,” Sachi explains. “Aesthetics is a very important part of Shunya Products. We are both design focused. If the product doesn’t look good, no one will want to use it. For example, the bamboo straws, which I encountered on my travels through Sikkim  are completely natural but are designed in such a way that they will appeal to an urban user. You will want to use them again and again,” says Sachi about the sleek and stylish Shunya products.

Bamboo Drinking Straws

Being first generation entrepreneurs hasn’t been easy and they have had their fair share of strategic and business challenges. “From getting to know about the raw materials, packaging, working with transport and courier services to working on collaborations, it’s been a journey full of learning,” Sachi says, as she takes a break from packaging their latest order. Their products are becoming popular with corporates, restaurants and individuals looking for eco-friendly options and the feedback so far is extremely positive. However, the duo often find people are reluctant to make the switch to green alternatives—”It is very challenging when our greatest rivals are the cheap plastic products that people have been using for decades. We hope that by creating products that are beautiful and easy to use, we are able to change the current mindset towards eco-friendly products.”

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Shunya’s 5-in-1 tray

With Shunya, the Maniars want to show that eating, drinking and celebrating – activities that bring us joy can become guilt free pleasures if they are done in ways that do not pollute the environment and harm our bodies. ‘This is a very exciting time for us’, says Yash as he talks of the other daily use items that Shunya is looking for sustainable substitutes for, “We feel we are part of an entrepreneurial community that wants to bring about a change in the world and that is very encouraging.” For product enquiries or to place an order for Shunya’s eco-friendly dinnerware, send an email to work.shunya@gmail.com, get in touch through the  website or call +91-9920407033/+91-9920877443. All photos courtesy: Shunya Alternatives


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  • True innovation and something we need in this country slowly getting dumped in thermocol and other packaging materials… Wishing them all the success….

  • Madhu

    Wow Sachi…congrats on being a change agent…be it at CCDC or what ever you do, you are truly inspiring…I would definitely opt for shunya

  • Mohammad Muzzammil

    The Maniars are an inspiration….thinking compassionately for our planet!

  • Rudri

    Amazing and inspirational work! Recently attended a wedding and was deeply concerned about the exponential growth in the usage of plastic/Styrofoam products..came back and felt extremely relieved after reading this article. Kudos to you both! The only thing required now is publicity so that more people switch to this green alternative.