Furniture brand Ikea is helping to reduce air pollution in India by turning rice waste into a renewable material for its products.
A residue called rice straw forms as rice is harvested, and farmers usually burn it, contributing to air pollution and smog.
The harm caused by rice waste is especially pronounced in agricultural areas, such as towns surrounding New Delhi. Now, Ikea is working with farmers to collect rice straw, saving them from having to dispose of it, and turning it into a renewable material for products.
The project is called Better Air Now.
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“The health effects of air pollution are severe and at Ikea we are determined to contribute to a solution,” Helene Davidsson, sustainability manager South Asia at Ikea Purchasing, said in a statement. “We know that burning of rice crop residue is a major pollution source and with this initiative we hope that will change. If we can find a way to make use of rice straw it would become a valuable source for the farmers instead of being burnt, which in the end also would contribute to better air for people.”
In New Delhi, everyone ingests air pollution equivalent to smoking 50 cigarettes every day.
That’s because the city’s air is so contaminated that walking down the street is tantamount to inhaling cigarettes.
Indian presidential staff members walk surrounded by smog at the presidential palace in New Delhi, India, Nov. 7, 2017. Air pollution in India's capital has hit hazardous levels prompting local officials to ask that school shut down and a half marathon scheduled later in November be called off.
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India has nine of the 10 most air polluted cities in the world, according to the World Health Organization, and cities regularly boasts levels of fine particulate matter — the residue from sulfate, nitrates, black carbon, and other contaminants — 10 to 20 times levels deemed safe.
The sources of this pollution are varied and include coal-fired power plants, transportation and agriculture sectors, deforestation, and garbage burning.
To remove rice waste from this list, Ikea plans to work closely with local and national officials, non profits, farmers, universities, and other relevant players, according to its press release.
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The company will initially focus in the north of the country but eventually plans to expand to fully eliminate the problem of rice waste burning.
Air pollution isn’t just a problem in India.
Globally, more than 7 million people are prematurely killed each year from contaminated air, according to the World Health Organization. As fine particles from pollutants fill the air, they penetrate the lungs and cause “stroke, heart disease, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases and respiratory infections, including pneumonia,” WHO notes.
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More than 90% of these deaths occur in “low- and middle-income countries, mainly in Asia and Africa, followed by low- and middle-income countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region, Europe, and the Americas.”
Ikea has taken other steps in the past to reduce its ecological footprint including phasing out single-use plastics, reducing food waste, and pursuing carbon neutrality.
Its latest move go beyond cutting down on air pollution by providing the brand with a viable alternative to plastic. The first prototypes of the material will be ready by the end of the year.
“Ikea works continuously to contribute and enable healthy and sustainable living,” Lena Pripp-Kovac, sustainability manager at Inter Ikea Group, said in a statement. “One of our main priorities is clean air and the ‘Better Air Now’ initiative is an important step on this journey.”