Reduce. Reuse. Recycle
The government, led by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has taken huge strides towards a clean environment and sustainable development. On the occasion of World Environment Day (June 5), we take a look at a few entrepreneurial ventures that are using waste material to make utility products and thus adding to the government’s initiatives
Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in 2014, one of his aims has been to transform India into a cleaner nation. And to achieve the goal he had launched a number of schemes and initiatives, of which the most ambitious and successful is the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (Clean India Mission). Launched by PM Modi on October 2, 2014, on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhiji’s 145th birth anniversary, the mission came to fruition in 2019 when India was declared Open Defecation Free (ODF). The mission continues to organise cleanliness drives and execute various sanitation projects across the country. Another pioneering initiative of the government is the Namami Gange Programme, an integrated conservation mission working to abate pollution, and conserve and rejuvenate River Ganges (Ganga).
While the government is focussed on the cleanliness drive at the mission mode, there are a number of small enterprises and entrepreneurial ventures that are, in their own way, contributing to not just the cleanliness of the environment but also the effective recycling of products that cause harm to both terrestrial and marine life. Here are a few examples of sustainable innovations from India that are redefining the term “best out of waste” and are creating employment opportunities in the process.
The fragrance of devotion
There is a line in a popular Hindu hymn that goes “tera tujhko arpan (what belongs to the gods, goes back to the gods).” This is the underlying philosophy of Phool, a Kanpur-based company that recycles flowers offered in temples and eventually immersed in the Ganges into incense sticks. The idea of Phool, meaning flower in Hindi, was conceived by Ankit Agarwal in 2015 when he was visiting the Ganga ghat in Kanpur and witnessed a truck filled with flowers collected from temples in the vicinity being dumped in the water. “As soon as the flowers touched the water, their colours faded, which made me curious. On research, I found that these flowers were grown with insecticides and pesticides that cause havoc in the river and affect its biophysical state. That is when the mission for Phool was realised – to repurpose these sacred flowers into organic products.” After the flowers are collected, they are first segregated by hand during which plastic and paper are weeded out. Then the flowers are sprayed with bioculum (an environment-friendly compound that speeds up the composting process) to offset chemical residues. Next, the flowers are carefully and thoroughly washed, petals are delicately broken and sun-dried. The dried petals are powdered and mixed with natural plant resins to make a dough, which is hand-rolled into incense sticks and dried. The sticks are finally dipped in essential oils before packing.
Every day, Phool collects over 2.5 tons of flowers from temples in and around Kanpur. These flowers are converted not just into incense sticks but also to such organic products as incense cones, gulaal (powdered colour) and vermicompost. Along with doing its bit towards the betterment of the environment, Phool also employs local women. “While we were starting our factory, a group of women who earlier worked as manual scavengers approached us for work. The job was more than just increased wages; it meant respect and dignity for them. Starting from a group of 5, Phool has been a part of the transformation journey of over 173 women till date,” says Agarwal. Of the many recognitions the company has received for its innovations, the most notable include United Nations Momentum of Change Award at COP 2018 and Asia Sustainability Award in 2020.
All in the warp and we ft
It is often said that some of the best ideas germinate at the unlikeliest of times. And Nandan Bhat, founder of Ecokaari, a company that upcycles waste plastic into beautiful handcrafted fabrics, is an apt example. An avid trekker, Bhat frequented the northern parts of the country and during his hikes noticed the amount of garbage left behind by tourists. Bhat grew up in close proximity to nature in Kashmir and seeing the quantity of waste in the mountain areas disturbed him. “A large portion of any litter consists of plastic wrappers. Plastic bottles are a part too but they are collected by waste pickers and sold for money, which is not the case for wrappers. I decided to do something about the plastic that is not recycled by anyone,” Bhat points out, adding that over nine million tonnes of plastic is generated every year in India and millions of marine animals die annually due to plastic pollution. As a viable solution, Bhat combined his passion for traditional Indian handicraft and sustainable living, and in September 2020 set up Ecokaari (eco stands for eco-friendly and kaari for kaarigar or artisan). The collected plastics are first washed in biodegradable cleaner and dried, after which they are cut manually into small strips based on their colour and thickness. Next, these strips are rolled on a charkha (spinning wheel) into bobbins. The final step involves fitting the bobbin in a shuttle and weaving fabric on a traditional handloom. “The uniqueness of this fabric lies in the fact that it is completely upcycled. While we use the plastic strips as the weft, for the warp we use threads made from recycled plastic bottles.
The latter is the same material used to make dri-fit sportswear that is quick-drying and reflects water,” Bhat elaborates. The fabric is then cut into desired patterns and designed into yoga, tote and duffle bags, wallets, table mats, cutlery kit pouches, and cushion and table covers. Based in Pune, the company upcycles a variety of plastic waste, including single-use plastic bags, multi-layered wrappers of food products and old audio and video cassette tapes. “We also work with plastic packets from large online e-commerce portals, apart from accepting donations from people who share the same vision of a plastic-free environment,” Bhat adds. Along with upcycling plastic waste, Ecokaari is also keeping the traditional Indian crafts of handloom weaving and charkha alive. “It is a humble attempt to pass on the heritage of the handloom to the future generation because they have lost interest in it after the advent of the powerloom,” says Bhat, who was a SEED Low Carbon Award Finalist, a recognition accorded by UN SEED, in 2019.
A use for everything
‘Reduce. Reuse. Recycle.’ may have been the catchphrase of a popular 1990s animated show, but for 27-year-old Gujarat-based Binish Desai, it is no less than a mantra. An innovator and self-claimed social ecopreneur, he has been creating sustainable and utility products from waste materials since he was 11 years old. Today, he is making headlines for his latest invention – Brick 2.0. Made by using discarded face masks, which have become a necessity since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, these bricks come at a time India, and the world at large, is grappling with the issue of pollution caused by what is termed as ‘corona waste’. “When the lockdown began last year, initially everyone looked at the decreasing levels of air pollution. But all I could think of was what the rising demand for PPE suits and masks would lead to,” says Desai, founder of the company Eco-Eclectic Technologies.
His innovative solution to the problem began with studying the manufacturing material of the masks, which is a non-woven fibre. He then collected a few masks and dipped them in a bucket of disinfectant for two days before conducting a series of experiments to determine the appropriate combination of binders to ensure the tenacity of the end product. “The successful ratio turned out to be 52 per cent PPE/ masks, 45 per cent paper waste and 3 per cent binder,” points out Desai, who has been featured in the Forbes ‘30 Under 30’ Asia 2018 list of successful social entrepreneurs. After the success of the experiment, Desai got in touch with municipal corporations and local civic institutions across Surat and Valsad to set up eco bins for the collection of PPE waste. The gathered materials are shredded after being thoroughly sanitised. Next, paper waste, which is obtained from industrial paper mills, and a special binder created in his own laboratory are mixed with the shredded PPE waste. “The mixture is set aside for about six hours before setting it in moulds. The moulds are dried for a few days before use,” elaborates Desai, who claims that Brick 2.0 is fire retardant, recyclable and absorbs less than 10 per cent water.
This is, however, not the first time Desai has fashioned bricks from waste materials. Around 2010, he had developed a different kind of brick from paper waste, leftovers of chewing gum, organic binders and plant extracts. He called it P-bricks and used it to construct over 10,000 toilets and buildings in rural Gujarat, Maharashtra and Andhra Pradesh. Moreover, Desai’s inventions are not just limited to environment-friendly bricks. By his own admission, “With a little R&D and a few experiments, my team and I can turn any form of waste into something useful.” From lamps and jewellery to wall clocks – the results are varied. The most wonderful aspect of Brick 2.0 is its affordability – INR 2.8 a block! And the number of enquiries and pre-orders rolling in from architects and interior designers across India is testament to its utility and sustainability. These are three of the numerous entrepreneurial initiatives that are not only furthering PM Modi’s vision of Clean India Mission but are also contributing to his Make in India and Aatmanirbhar Bharat initiatives.