My green idea: Recycling India’s floral waste

Sacred flowers are taken for worship on hand at river GangesImage copyright
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Sacred flowers are taken for worship on the hand at the river Ganges

India is a place of flowers. Lots of them.

Piles of marigolds, roses, carnations and other flowers are left at temples, mosques and sikh gurudwaras for use in religious ceremonies.

Afterwards, the flowers can prove difficult to dispose of.

Tipping the discarded petals into flowing waters is one option, but this can add to the burdens for India’s often heavily polluted waterways.

Chemical engineer and eco-entrepreneur, Parimala Shivaprasad, thinks she has the solution.

The 26-year-old from Bangalore, currently a postgraduate student at the University of Bath, wants to turn the leftover flowers into a useful product.

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University of Bath

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Parimala Shivaprasad in the lab at Bath University

Her big idea is to build a social enterprise that will enable temples in India to extract essential oils from the flowers.

The remains, she says, can be used as organic compost to help feed the poor.

“I want to collect the floral waste and extract the essential oils from the fragrant part, the biomass, and then compost the rest of the biomass to produce organic manure, looking at completely recycling the flower waste,” she says.

“That manure could be used by small households or even the temples on their vegetable patch, because usually temples tend to feed people on a daily basis.”

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Woman putting blessed puja flowers in the river Ganges in Varanasi, India

Parimala was constantly surrounded by flowers when she was growing up in India.

While studying for a degree in chemical engineering, she became interested in the idea of developing a business based on recycling floral waste from temples.

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“Flowers from religious places cannot really be combined with normal waste,” she says.

“Where [temples] have access to rivers and lakes, they tend to dispose of them in flowing waters because that is considered holy.

“Otherwise, they try and get them into the land fills, but if it cannot be combined with the waste it is dumped on open ground and this has led to a lot of pollution in rivers and lakes and on land.”

Organic matter from rotting flowers contributes to the growth of algae, which can deplete oxygen levels and cause marine life to die. Rotting flowers may also cause pollution problems on land.

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Flower petals for Puja ceremony

Parimala says about two million tonnes of floral waste in India are discarded every day after religious ceremonies, much of which could be totally recycled.

Step one: Test the idea in the lab

Parimala has developed lab equipment that would allow individual temples to extract essential oils.

“The early idea is to scale up the lab equipment I have to accommodate about five kilos of flower petals to work with on a daily basis and run the extraction unit for about eight hours a day,” she says.

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Parimala Shivaprasad

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Waterways choked with discarded flowers are a common sight in India

Step two: Conduct pilot studies

Feasibility testing suggests the idea could work on a small scale, suitable for use in temples.

Parimala is planning to carry out a pilot study at a temple in Bangalore, with the help of her father, who is a chemist.

If this proves successful, she will extend the trial to more temples in the area before looking at setting up franchises across India.

Step three: Living the dream

She says her dream is to turn the idea into a social enterprise that will help tackle the floral waste problem in India.

“Seeing so much floral waste in India – and because I was a chemical engineer – I thought the two could come together and make something useful,” says Parimala.

“An entrepreneur was totally unexpected for me because I was getting into my PhD. But, I really enjoy both being in the university and the journey so far as an entrepreneur.”

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