Photograph by Paul Salopek
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Robin Naiding, headman in the village of Baga Dima, in the state of Assam, in northeastern India, holds his handiwork: bamboo drinking straws. He wants the reusable and biodegradable straws to replace their plastic cousins, which “spoil peoples’ health.”

Photograph by Paul Salopek

For this village in India, sustainability is rooted in tradition

“They want to drink from bamboo because it’s the original plastic.” A grassroots industry is emerging from a generations-old practice.

Writer and National Geographic Fellow Paul Salopek’s Out of Eden Walk is a storytelling odyssey across the world in the footsteps of our human forebears. This is his latest dispatch from India.

Robin Naiding, the mild-mannered gaonbura, or headman, of Baga Dima, a village in the jungled hills northeastern India, isn’t sure why much of humanity enjoys imbibing drinks through a small plastic tube. But having been assured of this fact, and having been informed, moreover, that there is a global crisis of conscience about the use of plastic for such products, Naiding is happy to do his part in resolving the problem.

“A businessman from Kolkata came here last year and asked us to make bamboo straws,” Naiding said. “He said big people in the hotels don’t like drinking from plastic anymore. They want to drink from bamboo because it’s the original plastic.” He paused, as if weighing the improbability of this explanation. “They also told me plastic spoils people’s health,” he added.

Naiding and his family are pioneers in a new eco-friendly industry taking root in Assam, the sprawling green Indian frontier state that borders Bangladesh and Bhutan. With India joining a global environmental movement to restrict single-use plastics, and with Indian restaurants increasingly purging their inventories of plastic straws—the villain of disposable, plastic trash that is washing, at a rate of some eight million tons a year, into the world’s rivers and oceans—the search is on for less polluting alternatives.

Paper straws are biodegradable but, being wood-based, create their own pressures on India’s forest resources. Enter wild bamboo: The versatile grass that grows abundantly across much of the country and is both organic and sustainable.

“Bamboo straws have not only proved to be an effective replacement over plastic and paper straws for our clients but are also better economically, environmentally, functionally, and aesthetically,” said Ravi Kiran, the co-founder of Bambugo, the start-up that is partnering with villagers in Assam to harvest and process bamboo into tiny pipelines for cold drinks consumed in megacities such as Delhi, Bangalore, and Chennai. “Our customers like them.”

If sterilized after each use and stored in a dry place, Kiran said, bamboo straws can be reused up to a hundred times. They decompose in landfills and presumably don’t clog the intestines of whales. Countries such as China, Costa Rica, and South Africa all produce and consume large quantities of bamboo straws. Kiran plans to export his Indian products to Europe and North America, where disposable plastics bans are in effect.

In the hill village of Baga Dima, comprised of 47 households, the indigenous Dimasa people are poised to lead that charge. They have been manufacturing bamboo products for generations.

Villagers weave rattan, peeled bamboo strips, into sturdy furniture. They sling bamboo baskets onto their backs in lieu of backpacks. Bamboo sieves and ladles hang in their wood-fired kitchens. Even their houses are often made of cross-thatched bamboo. Standing inside a local home on a bright tropical day, sunlight sparkles through the walls’ fretwork like pinprick constellations of stars.

“We still use bamboo cups at our wedding ceremonies,” village leader Naiding said. Nobody has ever used bamboo as a straw.

Naiding and about 10 relatives and friends hack the surrounding thickets of bamboo with bush knives and saw the stems into seven-inch lengths. After sanding and boiling—sometimes with vinegar and turmeric to help sterilize and tint the plant’s cellulose—the bamboo straws are boxed and shipped by truck to the nearest airport, a three-hour drive away on appalling roads. The harvested bamboo grows back even thicker after cutting, Naiding said.

“It’s a good sideline,” said Naiding, who also farms rice, jackfruit, and lychees.

Naiding’s orders range from 1,000 to 10,000 straws. He earns about 1.5 cents per piece. (On commercial food and beverage websites, bamboo straws in India (sell for more than 10 times that.) The village’s output is less than microscopic compared to the staggering 500 million plastic straws still churned out every year in the United States alone. But Naiding hoped the idea will catch on.

See another solution to India's plastic problem: edible cutlery

Plastic cutlery has been around for years, widely considered the only choice for cheap, disposable cutlery. Knowing the threat plastic poses to our environment and health, Narayana Peesapathy created a tasty and nutritious alternative: edible cutlery. Made with flours of jowar (sorghum) blended with rice and wheat, the spoons contain no chemicals, preservatives, fat, emulsifiers, artificial colors, or milk products. They're 100 percent natural, biodegradable, and come in a variety of sweet and savory flavors. Black Ticket Films and The Better India teamed up to produce this short film by Sushmit Ghosh about how, from now on, finishing your meal might have a new meaning.

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Perched atop a ridge amid forests that are rapidly being converted to agriculture, Baga Dima has followed the lead of India’s federal government and imposed its own restrictions on disposable plastics. But even in such isolated hinterlands—just as at the national level—enforcement hasn’t been easy.

Plastic chairs replaced bamboo models at Naiding’s house. And as in many rural communities in India, the village footpaths were spangled with biscuit wrappers, empty shampoo sachets, and plastic bags—artifacts unseen only a generation ago.

“Everything in the shops comes in plastic now, and it’s hard to get people to stop using it,” Naiding admitted. “Maybe plastic straws are the same.”

This story was originally published on the National Geographic Society’s website devoted to the Out of Eden Walk project. Explore the site here.

Paul Salopek
won two Pulitzer Prizes for his journalism while a foreign correspondent with the Chicago Tribune. Follow him on Twitter @paulsalopek.