Q: What was the basic objective you wanted to address through your venture?
A: It addresses twin objectives – related to environment and social aspects.
One – to ensure that the solid waste from our cities, be it homes or offices, does not reach the open landfills. Most of us know about the disastrous impact that continual waste dumping in open landfills is having on the quality of our land, air and water resources.
Second – to drive inclusive economic growth for the waste-pickers, and creating the scope to formalise this informal segment of workers. We know that India’s growth-story since the 1990s has been slightly skewed towards a certain segments of the demography. Large swathes of our populace are still left out. Hence, there is a dire need to bring those segments within the formal economy.
Q: How does your business model work?
A: In simple terms, our team collects the segregated waste from various homes and offices who have empanelled with us. Thereafter, it is taken for processing and sorting into the usable items that can be sold onwards to recyclers and other stakeholders. We started operations in 2015, and currently process a capacity of 200 tons per month. Since Indian households never had a culture of segregating their waste at source, we drive the awareness through educative pamphlets. We have also launched a digital app wherein people can book a pick-up at a convenient time.
Q: Tell us how the commercials work in this process?
A: The recyclers are those who buy various types of waste in bulk, which has undergone some value-addition and can be reused onwards. Some examples are tetra-packs, laminated waste, plastics, organic waste, etc. Adding more and more waste streams would contribute as revenue sources. We also manufacture our own brand of organic compost from the waste, which is retailed out to the public through e-commerce platforms. We also have the FMCG companies who are now paying for certain categories of recycled waste as part of the Extended Producer Responsibility guidelines. These three segments form the revenue streams in our business model.
Regarding the costs, we have three main segments of cost, i.e. transport and logistics, materials and processing. We maintain our own team and rent most of the machineries. We also buy materials from the informal sector I order to expand the reach of the collection activity. Currently, we engage with over 1,500 waste-pickers as part of this process, and have also formalised part of them on our own rolls with full benefits.
Q: What have been the main challenges to drive this venture?
A: The main challenge has been to create the market for the waste streams. Given the way India’s waste management system currently functions, there is no market for the stakeholders. So, one has to actually create the market, in order to bring in the stakeholders who would buy the products. Another challenge has been to change the behavioural mind-set of people when it comes to waste management practices. Most people in India are just not willing to effect small practices like segregation etc. that could have a manifold impact on the entire way waste is processed in this country. The third are the regulatory hurdles. Many cities in India still do not have proper waste management regulations, and the lack of a regulatory dictum makes the task difficult. Moreover, the exiting way of doing things is also advantageous to certain sections of the polity.
Q: What is your advice to other innovators in sustainable businesses that are striving to achieve triple bottom-line?
A: This is absolutely the right time to enter this field. The classical way of doing things has not worked in mitigating the adverse impact they have on our natural capital – both environment and resources. We need more and more people with workable ideas that can help sustainable development, and it is highly encouraging to see more entrepreneurs taking the plunge in sustainable businesses. What we also need are more stringent regulations that create an enabling ecosystem for this to work, as well as further interest from impact investors since private capital has to fund a large part of these new business models. All in all, it is a good time to look at these emerging areas!
Talking about myself, I was completely new to this field, as I worked in the consulting industry after my PhD. The most exciting thing for me about this project was that it could address the twin environment and social problems which our urban landscape is facing. As someone said, most problems are today being solved by outsiders rather than domain-people. Outsiders bring in a fresh perspective and a new way of thinking, and we need that to solve a lot of the challenges our world is facing today. That is why I say this is absolutely the right time to enter this field!
Q: Do you think we can use environmental diplomacy to engage with other developing countries, the way we use education and healthcare?
A: India can definitely stand out as an example to educate other countries on initiatives to be taken for a better environment and natural capital. India has pioneered a lot of work in the developing world on this front. However, a lot is still left for us to do about ourselves. India still has a long way to go in better waste management. Waste management has to become the producer’s responsibility so that he takes back what he put out there, rather than just being a strain on the city’s budget and municipal resources. For instance, Bangalore spends about Rs 100 crore per month on transporting of waste alone. If this waste is properly recycled, then a part of this huge cost can be recovered. Moving away from such a model is going to be tough because it needs the government’s will and a lot of support from the producers; but it may become inevitable if we are to preserve our environment and resources for future generations.
Q: Lastly, tell us about your future plans?
A: We plan to expand to three cities and manage a team of 10,000 waste-pickers over the next two years.