Of the 300 million tonnes of plastic waste produced every year, only 9% is recycled around the world. Where does the remaining waste go? Millions of tonnes of plastic waste escape into the environment and are either burned or dumped in landfills. This waste never fully disappears and persists in the environment for centuries. Of all plastics produced, 36% is used in packaging, approximately 85% of which ends up in landfills or as unregulated waste.
Unfortunately, this is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to environmental pollution caused by waste. If we look at the textile waste over the years, the Ellen Macarthur Foundation, a UNEP partner, estimated that a truckload of abandoned textiles is dumped in landfills or incinerated every second. Globally less than 1% of clothes are recycled as clothing, while the remaining waste continues to pollute local and global ecosystems.
Once the waste enters the environment, its repercussions can be felt for generations to come. The time for action is long overdue, and although missed opportunities have contributed to the current waste management crisis, a lot can still be done.
According to a report by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) released last week, the world could reduce plastic pollution by 80% by 2040. That is if countries and companies implement deep policy changes and market shifts to create a circular economy. The UNEP is hosting the second meeting of the International Negotiating Committee (INC), INC-2, in Paris this week to discuss plastic treaty negotiations. The ongoing discussions, which began on Monday, aim to achieve a comprehensive, legally binding global plastics treaty by 2024. Many countries believe that the treaty should prioritize "circularity," with the goal is to keep already-produced plastic items in use for as long as possible.
The circular economy path is the one less travelled, even in India. India produces 3.4 million tonnes of plastic waste in a year, and only 30% of it is recycled. Of the textile waste which accounts for 8.5% of the global total, only 59% of it finds its way back into the textile industry through reuse and recycling, with a mere fraction making it back into the global supply chain.
Ahead of World Environment Day on June 5, we take a look at several enterprises in different parts of India that are actively fostering a shift in people's mindset around waste management. Meet reCharkha, Rhino Machines, Meemansa, and Urban Darzi, enterprises that are embracing the concept of upcycling waste, and adopting a circular approach that keeps plastic and textile waste out of ecosystems.
reCharkha - The Ecosocial Tribal
Founded by Amita Deshpande in 2020, reCharka is a social enterprise, that focuses on resolving the issue of waste management, particularly waste plastic. Through a manual upcycling process, reCharkha transforms waste plastic into beautiful handcrafted fabric, using the Indian traditional charkha and handloom.
The plastic waste which would have otherwise probably ended up in a landfill is transformed into handbags, wallets and other items through reCharkha’s endeavour.
Speaking about reCharkha’s objectives, Renuka, communication associate at reCharkha, said, “Our founder, Amita Deshpande wanted to find a solution to upcycle the plastic waste so that it isn’t dumped in landfills, alongside generating employment opportunities. reCharkha aims to upcycle plastic waste for conservation of the environment, generate livelihood in rural areas for women and youth, and most importantly create awareness about plastic waste to create conscious consumers.”
The &t=51s">upcycling process at reCharkha starts by collecting the raw material, that is, clean and rightly cut single-use plastic bags and wrappers. The enterprise accepts different types of &t=41s">waste sent to them by ‘conscious consumers’ including plastic/polyethene bags, multilayered wrappers of gifts, biscuits, cookies, old audio and video cassette tapes, courier packages and a lot of other household packaging materials like cereal, flour and detergent packets.
Once the raw material is collected, the waste plastic bags and wrappers are washed and sanitised. After sun-drying, they are sorted into different colours and not dyed. The plastic wrappers are then cut into strips manually using scissors and spun on a traditional charkha and woven on a handloom. The handwoven fabric is then tailored to create beautiful products such as handbags, fashion accessories, office utilities and home decor products.
“The cost of production is high as everything is handmade, made on charkhas and handlooms. It is an intricate process as 6-7 people work on the production of each bag,” Renuka told The Core.
reCharkha encourages people to adopt sustainable practices, at the grassroots level. Even while encouraging people to donate their plastic waste, they urge people to first refuse, reduce, reuse and only then recycle or upcycle. The enterprise often conducts workshops in their Pune and Mumbai stores to increase awareness on topics like how to segregate waste at home, the process of composting, and how to make bio-enzyme-based home cleaners, among other sustainable living tips.
“Our founder always says that the use of plastic in our daily lives should be as minimal as possible. Since we can’t eliminate its use completely, it is important to take responsibility for where the plastic waste ends up. The happiest day for us will be when we won’t have even a single plastic bag left to upcycle,” Renuka added.
Based in Kanpur and New Delhi, ‘Urban Darzi’, is an Indian lifestyle brand that is raising the bar for fast fashion brands by incorporating the principles of a circular economy. 'Urban Darzi' embodies the essence of responsible fashion, upcycling, sustainable design, and cultivating a sustainable wardrobe.
Akshit Bangar, founder and creative director launched the first collection of the brand in 2020, in the midst of the pandemic, when discussions about leading a sustainable lifestyle were at their peak. “I didn’t want to do what everyone else is doing. We're making clothes from clothes. The idea here, at Urban Darzi is, to make people realize the value of the clothes sitting inside the closet eating dust, try to limit overconsumption and bring about a behavioural shift in the way people look at fashion and clothes,” he told The Core.
According to Bangar, the products at Urban Darzi are upcycled down to the core. The products use textile scratch, donated old clothes, and plastic waste as well.
Urban Darzi works towards conscious consumption through- upcycling deadstock/overproduced garments & fabrics; using heritage Indian handwoven & handloom fabrics and by custom-making sustainable capsule wardrobes.
Bangar, had to face quite a few challenges, right in the beginning of his business. Initially, in 2018, the company lost an investor who had initially committed financial support but subsequently withdrew their investment. “They said they don’t want to do it. I lost a lot of momentum in between; took a year-long gap and went to Delhi.” While doing other things, Bangar kept on refining and evolving the idea for the brand and then finally launched it in 2020.
Urban Darzi gets a lot of its raw material from textile retailers and factories that have ample pieces of waste cloth left. “A lot of scrap that we receive is from factories — who either make fabric or clothes— and from boutiques and designer labels. Most people just throw these pieces away. So, that’s the last mile intervention we’re doing. We’re even picking up people’s old clothes for production,” Bangar said, while looking at a bunch of clothing, sent to him by a lady in Mumbai for upcycling.
“On Holi this year, we asked people to send their discarded clothes to us after celebrations. It was really interesting since we got a lot of response,” Bangar added.
People often complain that upcycled products are expensive. Enumerating reasons behind the comparatively higher cost, Bangar explains that in terms of the making and the construction, not only a lot of design and construction time go in, but a lot of deconstruction time goes in as well.
As far as awareness regarding upcycling is concerned, Bangar said, “We from this side of the table think the entire world is like us because that's what we see on our feed, whether it's on LinkedIn, Google, or Instagram, right? But when you look at the market, the consumer market across the globe or across the country around upcycling is literally 1 per cent. Having said that yes, the awareness is growing, there’s a small section of the society that's trying to be conscious and trying to negate the carbon footprint.”
Bangar said that through the brand he is trying to convert a customer who's a regular at a brand like Zara and doesn't mind spending 5-7k for a basic shirt to a brand like Urban Darzi. This is why, his focus has been on design aesthetics. “For me, as a founder, aesthetics are the most important thing. If I want to change the fast fashion consumer to a slow fashion consumer, I have to give them aesthetics, as the truth is most of them do not care about upcycling. The consumer is the biggest stakeholder which people just tend to ignore. If I'm willing to create a behavioural shift in people's minds across decades, a brand needs to offer aesthetics.”
Going forward, Urban Darzi is also looking to expand by upcycling old furniture and incorporating handwoven textiles. “We're looking at incorporating the idea of Indian handwoven textiles with the concept of upcycling, for one of our collections as well. The concept remains the same, which is to create an alternative lifestyle in front of people ki boss purani cheezon se bhi nayi cheezein banayi jaa sakti hain (you can make new products from old products as well).”
Rhino Machines- Silica Plastic Block
As awareness around the hazardous impact of plastic waste is growing, its recycling and upcycling are being taken up actively by several enterprises and organizations. But, another type of waste that is often ignored by industries is being upcycled at Rhino Machines, a manufacturing firm based in Gujarat. The firm addresses the waste disposal of silica-laden foundry dust and plastic by upcycling it into silica plastic blocks (SPB) and paver blocks.
Established in 1983 as a project consultancy firm, Rhino evolved in 1991 into a full-fledged manufacturing firm. Speaking to The Core, Manish Kothari Managing Director at Rhino Machines Pvt Ltd, said that Rhino’s sand reclamation solution reduces sand disposal expenses by 70% and effectively decreases reliance on purchasing new sand by 70%. But to become a zero waste discharge company, a solution for the 30% foundry dust was needed.
Kothari and his team devised the idea of a ">silica plastic block to tackle the problem of foundry dust from their sand reclamation plant. “We put together waste plastic to form a loam out of a mixture of silica dust(70%) and plastic(30%). The produced brick is 2.5x stronger than conventional red brick.”
In order to make people transition to the silica plastic block, one of the challenges was to bring its market cost as close to the regular red brick. Upcycling comes with a challenge of an increased cost of deconstruction. “Once the R&D team along with engineers recognised that plastic and dust could work well together, we had to bring its cost closer to the red brick so we started to bring down its weight. In our tests, since we had found that its strength is over twice the conventional brick, so by bringing down its weight, the cost came very close to that of red brick,” Kothari explained.
Kothari credits his upbringing for instilling the values to take all the waste that is polluting the surroundings and convert it into something useful. "The way we were raised played a huge role in teaching us about the value of money. As a fundamental habit, we never threw anything away growing up. This habit got integrated into our business as well and ultimately became a routine for me. If there is anything that can be used as a resource, then to optimise its use is an integral part of our work.”
To grow further acceptance and awareness among people as a new technology, Kothari said, “No matter whether it is an institutional consumer, government or private consumer, certification does matter a lot since consumers are required to show the certified test of the product at several stages. We have conducted separate tests for emissions like volatile organic compound testing and durability. So, the product (silica plastic block) is established process and productivity wise but to scale up its use in the market, to make it reach different parts of the country and most importantly, to create a demand, an overall product certification framework is required.” Kothari added that to scale up the Rhino bricks project, research on how we can further reduce the energy and production costs.
Apart from producing bricks and paver blocks, Rhino Machines have also produced table tops, benches, pen stands and other products to limit plastic and dust waste as much as possible.
Manish Kothari, managing director at Rhino Machines is also one of the founders of an apparel and clothing manufacturing company, ‘Meemansa’. Based in Anand in Gujarat and Mumbai, Meemansa is working towards upcycling textile industry waste, to be a zero-waste company. “We are committed to working locally to improve the social, economical, and environmental well-being of our earth,” the company’s mission statement reads.
Elaborating on the vision of Meemansa, Kothari said, “Both our businesses (Rhino Machines and Meemansa) are based on sustainable development goals(SDG). At Meemansa, we try to incorporate sustainable development from the initial stage itself by repurposing whatever excess fabric remains after production.”
Meemansa focuses on three SDGs, namely SDG 12, which ensures sustainable consumption; SDG 8, which promotes sustained, productive employment and decent work for all; and SDG 5 by providing equal employment opportunities to women. To provide a livelihood to the underprivileged by providing skills and work to them, Meemansa collaborates with NGOs & self-help groups .“We work with women in Mumbai, who do not have any source of income and train them to upcycle waste into products such as bags. Through this process, we are not teaching them to stitch bags but actually incubating them in a system where they can earn their own money. In Anand, we've lived this experience. Women who were previously earning Rs 3000, are now earning Rs 10,000 by being part of an upcycling business,” Kothari added.
According to Kothari, every innovation whether it is that of a silica plastic block, or of upcycled textile products requires a behavioural change in consumers. “Recently Meemansa also started #CircleUp to focus on geo-sustainable developmental goals, where we will be producing bags, curtains, table runners and other home furnishing items by upcycling excess fabric. So, there will be a 100% upcycled product range, preventing fabric waste from ending up in landfills,” Kothari said.
Speaking on how to take this upcycling technology across the country, Kothari said that technologies like the ones deployed at Rhino machines or Meemansa aren't limited to their foundations. With the right business model, they can reach anywhere. They can easily work as stand-alone business units if there is access to the market, technology, finance, and the producer or entrepreneur.