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Class of 2011: Sustaining success

Graduating student Amrita Adhikary creates a new design for protecting the environment.

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About 7,500 students will graduate from The University of Texas at Austin at the 128th spring commencement this Saturday, May 21. Each graduate has a unique story. To celebrate the Class of 2011, we’re highlighting 10 stories, profiling students who have overcome obstacles, discovered new dimensions and doggedly pursued their academic goals.

You might never have to feel guilty about using disposable dinnerware again if Master of Fine Arts (M.F.A.) Design student Amrita Adhikary finds success in her new business. As part of the “Field Study in Design” program under adviser Dan Olsen in the College of Fine Arts, Adhikary studied and worked with individuals engaged in community-based projects in rural India. Working with two organizations in India, Sulabh Social Service Organization and Ikon, the result of her efforts is “Beleaf,” an Earth-friendly solution to disposable dinnerware.

Adhikary aims to change wasteful actions into progressive ones through a combination of design and sustainability. Knowing that consumers use disposable dinnerware for convenience, she wanted to find a solution that eliminated the health and environmental disadvantages of using plastic. However, she also found through her research that modern landfills are not designed to aid biodegradation. So even if products are biodegradable, they need to be part of an infrastructure that allows for composting.

By borrowing from traditional, sustainable Indian methods and implementing her innovative design vision, Adhikary’s “Beleaf Dinnerware,” which is being featured at the M.F.A. Design Exhibition, is ushering her through her May graduation to what she hopes will be a widely accepted approach to modern sustainability.

Using a simple heat press to form fallen areca nut palm leaves into dinnerware, Adhikary’s business model expands beyond the design and production of the goods to working with disposal/composting companies to pick up the waste and transport it to the composting sites where it is composted, packed, sold and reintroduced into the soil.

Adhikary describes her graduate education at the university as “fulfilling and gratifying” because of the opportunity to interact with colleagues from disciplines across campus, including the Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs and the McCombs School of Business.

“It brought in outside professionals and that gave me a lot of insight to take an idea and build it and sell it and convince people. You need the tools to communicate the idea, otherwise it’s just in your head. It gave me the ammunition to gear my work,” she explained.

She is glad that she has been able to benefit from the variety of her peers in the design field. “The variety is such that you are thrown into a group that you have no idea of their knowledge base, so you can learn to thrive from each other,” she said.

As a mother, she also had to commute to school and take care of her home and her two children: a teenager and an 11-year-old. Noticing the dilemma faced when purchasing plates for her children’s parties, she was inspired to look at waste as a resource with potential. As she explained, because the infrastructure for biodegradable plates is insufficient, “Beleaf” presents an attractive “closed loop system.”

“I feel that I’ve developed a network of professors and students here in Austin, and it’s the ideal place to do the pilot for my project. UT gave me a platform to make this happen. Hopefully, my system will take shape right here in Austin. I’ve developed the idea and company, and will be able to take it forward, hopefully replicating it in cities across the nation,” she said.