As tonnes of PPE continue to be air-freighted into Britain to combat the coronavirus pandemic, our thoughts of organic, plastic-free lives have been overturned by the need for disposable medical equipment. Cleopatras caught up with Radhika Srinivasan on how she made the leap of faith to found an environmentally friendly PPE company, her inspiration and her advice to young entrepreneurs.
What are your aims with EcoTextura?
Our aim is to accelerate the transition from the current, linear model of medical accessories to a more sustainable model using a three-fold approach. Firstly, to combat the immediate challenge of the pandemic, we have been creating and donating free home-made, non-medical face coverings to carers, the elderly and vulnerable people around the UK, using a team of local seamstresses, tailors and delivery drivers. These 3-ply cotton/poly-cotton masks are reusable and washable. We feel that everyone should feel thought of, cared for, and kept safe during these times so we have also been concentrating on making lip-reading, clear-panel masks for the deaf and hard of hearing.
Secondly, EcoTextura’s online product store is a supply channel for high-quality, existing PPE, such as masks, hair caps, gowns, shoe covers and wash gloves. We are using our vast network of suppliers to ensure that medical centres, hospitals, councils and NGOs all have access to affordable, quality, certified PPE. Our hope is that our actions help to reduce the considerable strain on the over-burdened NHS supply, by sourcing this certified PPE for frontline workers.
The third arm of the EcoTextura is undoubtedly our main focus which is to continue in developing my own proprietary, sustainable material which is made from natural fibres to make PPE. This can be either recycled or composted after disinfection and, as a last resort, it will not produce toxic fumes if incinerated. We are hoping to see this launch by early 2021.
We are working closely with hospitals around the UK and medical establishments, such as Health Care Without Harm, to build a network of medical practices so that we can develop, trail and introduce the new sustainable textile medical accessories into their respective practices.
“I could see the whole process was inefficient, polluting, energy consuming and linear.”
What inspired EcoTextura?
I have been working on the company concept and products for the past three to four years – long before the Covid-19 pandemic began. The idea for EcoTextura grew out of a combination of different influences: as a teenager, I was regularly having hospital scans for my knee and found myself using so many medical disposables during each visit. As an engineer, I was naturally curious to find a better solution, so after some initial research I found that PPE and patient wear was made from polyester/PP and the majority of this ends up being incinerated at the end of its use, due to infection control. Also, most reusable PPE would last less than a month in the system and then be incinerated after undergoing numerous washes with harmful chemicals at high temperature. I could see the whole process was inefficient, polluting, energy consuming and linear.
I later went on to do a joint Masters in Mechanical Engineering with Business Finance at UCL and LSE. During this time, I became interested in production engineering and sustainable textiles, and designed a new non-petroleum based composite textile that I intend to use as part of the solution.
What made you make the leap of faith and start the business?
I had received funding for my non-petroleum based composite textile after I won a university business pitch competition, so I had the resources to develop EcoTextura. I love design, product development, and business planning within the context of sustainability – I really see the most potential in myself when I work in these areas. My incredible parents also encouraged me to save money and take these risks while I was young. I had the resources, the knowledge, and no excuse not to try. So, last July, I decided to quit my stable job as a stockbroker in London. I was living in a great townhouse with friends in Victoria, and I had even passed my finance exams and had other job offers, but I decided to move back home to pursue my start-up making my own textiles and PPE products. I had done so much research, I had savings and I couldn’t keep the engineer in me contained any longer – a true engineer will constantly want to improve things and a true business woman sees the feasible opportunity to make this happen. During my year working as a stockbroker in the City, I had learnt the very harsh reality of business failure, so I finally felt that I was going into business with a realistic outlook.
“a true engineer will constantly want to improve things and a true business woman sees the feasible opportunity to make this happen”
How many masks have you distributed to date?
1,300 and counting! These have been given to local carers, the elderly and vulnerable people.
How do you see EcoTextura growing?
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the global need for a sustainable, and reliable PPE sources in every country, so naturally we will aim to expand to the rest of Europe – and eventually worldwide. By working with hospital trusts across the country, we hope our roll-out can gain in pace even more rapidly. The natural-fibre textile I am developing is gaining a lot of interest and we hope to make this more widely available early next year.
Do you have any advice to other young women who are setting up their own business?
Consistency has been my greatest challenge. Convincing family and loved ones, gaining finance, struggling with self-motivation and building mental endurance are some factors that have hindered me from being more consistent with my work hours and work-energy. My advice to other women would be to accept the inevitability of these factors, keep searching for unbiased research around your idea, allow yourself to be malleable in your thoughts and plans, and don’t let your doubts stop you. Control the things that get in the way as best you can and don’t be too hard on yourself. It is all worth it when you finally see progress. Some of it is down to luck, so be kind to yourself, but keep searching for opportunities!
What is your greatest challenge?
The problem we face is systemic due to current hospital practices and the way PPE is manufactured and sold. Both parties have become accustomed to working with low prices that are the result of easy and cheap to obtain plastics. What’s more, hospitals already have PPE and waste destruction contracts in place, so why would they want to change? Despite more initiatives coming in regarding the adoption of environmentally responsible healthcare, hospitals are still finding it difficult to break out of this cycle. EcoTextura aims to change this with our new products by working with organisations such as Health Care Without Harm Europe who share our aim to transform health care worldwide by reducing its environmental footprint.
How is PPE currently disposed of?
The medical industry is one of the greatest waste producers; most PPE isn’t recycled due to risk of cross-contamination. Approximately 80% of waste is incinerated and taken to landfill from hospitals. Some “green” PPE disposal companies may offer zero-to-landfill schemes, with all non-recyclable waste sent to Energy Recovery Facilities to generate energy. Although all energy plants keep within their pollution limits and adhere to strict environmental regulations, this process does still generate emissions. Right now, there aren’t many organisations in the UK with a similar aim as EcoTextura, and of those I feel even fewer manage to do the job without greenwashing their products and services.
“The medical industry is one of the greatest waste producers; most PPE isn’t recycled due to risk of cross-contamination.”
How can people get involved?
For those wishing to get involved with our free reusable mask initiative, we welcome fabric donations – ideally high-thread count fabric is preferred, and the material should be washed beforehand with no punctures or rips. We have seen incredibly generous fabric donations and discounts from local fabric shops, tailors and local citizens who have gone out of their way to procure fabrics for us. It’s because of them that we have been able to produce and donate over 1,300 reusable cotton masks so successfully. You can also head to ecotextura.com to donate to us. For each £1 donated, EcoTextura can source enough materials to make a reusable mask and deliver it to those who need it most during this difficult time.