(Images via Google Images)
Ever wondered what happens to all those bottles we throw out after a long day of guzzling down beer with friends? Or the old tyres we dispose after they are of no use to our cars? Or the many plastic bags we throw away without a care in the world? While they largely end up in the dumpyard some of these bottles become chandeliers and clocks, some tyres transform into sleeping bags for your pets and some plastic bags turn into stylish wallets or totes. This phenomenal transformation happens thanks to the efforts of a group of socially responsible individuals, who have mastered the art of turning trash into beautiful pieces of art.
What is upcycling?
“Upcycling is adding value to a product or object which is of no value at all. It moves a product up the value chain in terms of usability and aesthetics,” explains Radhika Khaitan of WorkshopQ, a company that sells upcycled home décor products in Jaipur. Co-founded with her sister Madhvi, WorkshopQ owes its beginning to some coloured aluminium scrap the duo spotted at a friend’s aluminium factory. The crumpled balls of scrap soon turned into colourful toasters and tissue boxes. Now the sisters, both armed with degrees from the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising, Los Angeles, work with different materials like acrylic, plastic, wood and cardboard.
“Recycling is when you pass products through a factory process, change its form and produce some new product out of it,” explains Kumar Prashant, who runs a company called Re-birth in Pune. “Recycling could lead to more wastes, but in upcycling, the form is largely maintained and the product is not broken down, just bettered into something functional.”
Kumar started Re-birth along with his friend and mentor Nivedita Joshee Chopra. A mechanical engineer by profession, Kumar had it all–he was into designing and manufacturing cars, he had the money and he lived in style. What was missing was a sense of fulfilment and happiness. He quit his corporate job and started working on Re-birth, a company that is into reusing or giving life to dead and discarded objects. From bottle chandeliers and car body couches to tyre coffee table sets and window pane tea tables, Re-birth is revolutionising the interiors in Pune. Till date they have done up the interiors for eight offices and four pubs, their biggest project being the 35,000sqft office space of Thoughtworks, an IT company in Pune.
“It all started with a thought that we wanted to create something functional and do good to the environment as well,” says Kumar. “We didn’t expect it would pick up so much, the response has been overwhelming.” As people are getting more environment-friendly, it does not come as a surprise that there are takers for upcycled products. And upcycling is not just restricted to lifestyle products. It is now prevalent in fashion, personal accesories, gifts and souvenirs as well.
Sunny Sharma, director and designer of RoguenRags, which has a line of designer handbags and wallets made entirely through upcycling, says that there is an increased awareness among the public about why it is necessary to do good to the environment. “We all know that the waste management plans of our governments at every level are underdeveloped,” says Sunny, who has the experience of running six fashion stores in England for over a decade. “I have used my expertise in fashion to make whatever little difference I can.” Sunny and his team put in three years of solid research into every aspect of the process starting from proper sanitisation of the waste collected.
Somewhere along his journey, Sunny realised that there were a lot of children whose childhood was spent ragpicking. “It was sad,” he says. “Most of these young ones, some just seven or eight years old, were doing drugs.” That was when he decided to tie-up with Mira Nair’s NGO Salaam Baalak Trust and use part of their proceeds to rehabilitate the ragpickers. RoguenRags has also devised a chain of suppliers of raw materials like discarded seat belts, tyres, plastic, tetra packs, polypropylene sheets (used for packets of potato chips) etc. in such a way that these ragpickers are eliminated from the process, thereby getting a chance at living a better life through the NGOs.
When the first store opened in New Delhi’s DLF Saket Mall, RoguenRags had a lot of curious customers step in to look at their products. Most of them had no clue what upclycing meant or how it was different from recycling.
A lot of these projects support social causes. While Kumar and the Khaitan sisters have pledged a part of the proceeds of their sale to animal welfare, 24-year-old Amishi Shah of The Upcycle Project makes sure that she employs people with “social, physical or economic” disability. Anita and Shaleb Ahuja of Conserve India, an NGO which specialises in creating “bags from rags” since 1998, have taken it a step further and empowered a whole community in the outskirts of the capital. The NGO trains people from urban slums to process and sort waste materials and convert them into useful raw materials. As of now they support hundreds of ragpickers and employ only those from the local community.
The sudden surge in demand for upcycled projects has worked in favour of these initiatives, says Anita. “When we started out long ago, we had to concentrate on the export market through stores like Fairtrade Original, Ragbag, Gepa, Globalcraft, Habitat and Karma Karma,” she says. “But now due to the increased domestic demand, we have set up a web store for our products that are shipped within India.” Most of the entrepreneurs feel that their customers are sometimes not even aware of the back stories of their initiatives. “Our clients pick up a certain product based entirely on the merit of its quality and design,” says Sunny. There have been times when after having chosen a product, the customer has been overwhelmed when told that it has been made out of waste. “There is then a sense of fulfilment that one is making a difference, however small, to the environment and to someone else’s life and some customers become repeat buyers after hearing this.”
An expensive affair
If you think that as these products are made from waste, they will be cheap, Amishi is quick to bust that myth. “It is actually cheaper to create a new product from scratch,” she says. “Although there is waste strewn around at every corner of our cities, it is not that easy to procure it, thanks to a highly disorganised supply chain.” Owing to the fact that there are lot of links involved right from ragpickers to wholesalers in this dynamic chain, sourcing raw materials becomes a huge challenge for smaller outlets like hers. “Each of your products are designed based on the materials you can lay your hands on,” adds Kumar. “And, most of the work is done manually, so the labour costs are very high.”
For entrepreneurs who enter this business it is initially difficult to make ends meet. Every new product is an experiment, says Amishi, and experimenting is expensive. While Anita says she broke even within a year of starting operations, Amishi says that it is very thin line she treads. “I have broken even now, but if I were to include a new product in my catalogue, you never know, I might incur losses,” she says. Sunny is more philosophical about numbers. “Success and profit means different things to different people,” he says. But he agrees that for a business, it is important to be able to sustain itself, the reason why RoguenRags is targeted at the high-end segment of the market.
Bouquets and brickbats
Although there is a positive trend of increasing demand for upcycled producrs, there is still a section of customers who are sceptical about shelling out money for them. When they are told that these are made from waste, sometimes their first instinct is to smell the products. “We ensure that all the waste we collect goes through an elaborate 15-day sanitisation process and there is nothing to be worried about,” says Sunny. Alongside all the praise, upcycling has got criticism too. Zero-waste fanatics claim that upcycling only postpones or delays when the waste reaches landfills; it does not eliminate the waste. “Whatever already exists, we cannot eliminate,” says Kumar. “What we can do is use them for a longer time, efficiently and effectively, and reduce waste.” It is about changing our outlook and a shift in lifestyle, he adds.
The idea is to reduce the use of plastics and start being more environment-friendly by reusing everyday products rather than discarding them. Agrees Anita, who says that 20 plastic bags can make a good-looking wallet and 80 of them can make a stylish tote. “We upcycle about 10 tonnes of waste every month, so it depends on how you look at it,” she says. “Rather than complaining that we do not eliminate waste, shouldn’t we be looking at the employment generated and the positive returns we have created out of nothing?”
Leading a green life is not difficult anymore. Almost all these entrepreneurs conduct upcycling workshops to teach the common man how to make better use of household garbage. With the internet and so much information at our disposal, it is about time we equip ourselves to upcycle and stay clean and green.