In New Delhi, India, one of the most polluted cities in the world, one part of the sickly haze in the air often comes from nearby rice fields, where farmers burn straw after harvesting. When the wind blows in the wrong direction, massive clouds of smoke settle over the city, making it dangerous to breathe outside. The smog–which also comes from cars, and is made worse by weather patterns that trap air overhead–is sometimes so thick it causes car accidents.
For farmers, who have to quickly prepare fields to plant wheat, setting fires seems like the only option. But Ikea now wants to give them another. Farmers will be able to sell the unused part of rice plants to the home furnishing giant, which wants to turn it into a material for new products.
“We saw the fields around here being burned and thought, well, what if we can turn that burning into a material instead, and create something good out of it, and something good for the small-scale farmers as well?” says Helene Davidsson, the sustainability manager for South Asia at Ikea Purchasing.
The project, called Better Air Now, is focusing on Northern India, where cities like New Delhi, Gurgaon, and Faridabad suffer from particularly bad pollution. The company is currently experimenting with various materials to make from the straw; one possibility is a paper-like material that could be made into decorative objects. The first prototypes will be made by the end of the year.
The company, which is working closely with farmers, universities, nonprofits, the Indian government, the UN, and others on the project, says that it hasn’t seen examples of others making use of the straw for products. “I think we are one of the pioneers in using this as a material,” says Davidsson.
The first products will be sold in Ikea’s new store in Hyderabad, its first location in India, which opened in August. But the company is interested in potentially selling it elsewhere–and using a similar approach to tackle other local sources of pollution in other areas. “We want to see if we can scale it up, and also how we can take the learnings from this project that we do here,” she says. “How we collaboratively tackle a complex issue like air pollution, and create a model for how to handle it and then work with it in other polluted megacities where Ikea operates.”