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“One Man’s Trash Is Another Man’s Treasure”: How Designers Across India Are Recycling Waste

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By Moushumi Sharma:

Note: This article has been republished from Down To Earth.

One man’s trash is another man’s treasure, so goes the saying. For some entrepreneurs, this has become the new business mantra. From discarded bottles and worn-out tyres to old newspapers and ragged shoes, young professionals are recycling waste as a full-time business with a social message.

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Anu Tandon Vieira’s Retyrement Plan is one such venture. Using old tyres of all shapes and sizes and sustainable material such as cane and bamboo, Anu and her team of artisans create a range of quirky furniture that can be used as chairs, tables, pouffes or mirrors, and even cat scratch pads. While Anu sources the cane and bamboo from Assam and Karnataka, she purchases tyres from a supplier in Mumbai at Rs. 50-Rs. 100 per tyre. Work begins only after the tyres are washed and sanitised. To weave the material together, she purchases ropes from suppliers and textile tailors in Gujarat and Rajasthan. These ropes are fashioned from waste such as scrap fabric. The handcrafted furniture, therefore, is a rainbow of recycled material. “The emphasis is on producing beautifully designed woven pieces of furniture without compromising on the quality, and finding markets that value them,” says Anu. She believes finding cheap raw material will never be a problem because “the cities are spewing waste”. The challenge is how much of this can be recycled and utilised, she adds.

With a post-graduate diploma in textiles from the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, Anu has a hands-on approach to translate her motto of living green into a sustainable business enterprise. She invested Rs. 1 lakh as seed capital and started Retyrement Plan with a two-fold objective: to recycle waste into sustainable commodities and showcase the skills of artisans. She found migrant cane weavers from Assam, West Bengal, Bihar and Karnataka and took them on board, training them herself. Today, she employs six full-time weavers and 8-10 workers to help her in projects. “Our weavers and frame-makers earn Rs. 600-Rs. 700 per day on an average. Even if a single weaver is able to regain a sense of pride in his or her traditional skill through our efforts and wishes to train the next generation to carry it forward, we would have largely achieved what we set out to do,” she explains, adding that she looks at profit not in terms of monetary gain, but in the numbers of labourers she has employed.

As quality is paramount, Anu does not rush her workers, who might take two to three days for a pouffe and up to six days for a chair. Prices of the products range between Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 20,000. “Anu’s Retyrement project is vibrant and functional and is perfect for brightening up spaces. The best part is that she uses waste material in such a creative way that you end up wanting more,” says film stylist and Retyrement customer Pampa Biswas. The venture has tie-ups with stores in Goa, Mumbai, Bengaluru and Vadodara. But Anu prefers to sell the products herself. “It allows me to interact with my customers and tell them the story behind each piece. I also get many ideas. For instance, I learnt that pet lovers adored my ottomans since their cats could scratch them, nestle in them and play with them. This inspired us to make cat scratch pads with old bike tyres,” she says.

Trendy twist
Axomnia is another upcoming brand from Assam that transforms waste material into products of utility and art installations. Started by textile designer Neelakshi Devi, Axomnia uses different kinds of waste—scrap handloom fabric, bottles, cans, newspapers, sawdust, woodplanks, twigs, CDs, discarded furniture—to redefine junk. “The message of Axomnia is that nothing that we use today actually turns old. It is the appeal that becomes boring,” says Devi.

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The USP of the brand, she claims, is recycling old furniture into modern and trendy ones. This, she adds, does not require investment. Axomnia collects old furniture, say a sofa, chair or table, from households and transforms them with a completely new look, either to be used as a piece of furniture or a different product of utility. “Many people like buying antique products for their homes, but they are very costly. Axomnia takes your old gear and gives it back to you after painting it or changing its purpose, say transforming a chair into a shelf with minor modifications. Since we only charge for the service, it is pocket-friendly,” explains Devi.

Guwahati resident Subhalaxmi Bordoloi tried Axomnia’s service during the renovation of her home. “My parents were not sure what to do with the old furniture. As there was an emotional connect, they did not want to discard them. I came across Axomnia’s Facebook page and decided to take a chance. I was amazed at the stylish transformation of our old furniture. Axomnia’s service is value for money,” says Bordoloi.

Axomnia has a range of fashion accessories such as stoles, necklaces, bracelets, pouches and bags and home décor items such as chairs, lamps, chandeliers, cushion covers and showpieces. “My brand is trying to recreate the magic of lost textiles and textile techniques such as weaving and bring them in vogue again. This concept is sometimes generated through art, such as recycled wall art and installations,” says Devi, an alumnus of the National Institute of Fashion Technology, Chennai. Axomnia’s operations are handled solely by her, but she occasionally takes the help of weavers. Prices depend on time consumption, detailing, material used and its availability. Decorative bottles are priced between Rs. 700 and Rs. 800, while stoles made from scrap fabric cost a minimum of Rs. 600-Rs. 700. Currently, the brand sells its products through a lifestyle store in Chennai. Two other stores in Delhi and Guwahati are in the pipeline.

Devi says sustainable waste management is emerging as a lucrative business because people now understand the importance of sustainable living, apart from the aesthetic quotient related to it. Axomnia exhibited this concept at the Art of Revolution, an art event held in January this year in Chandubi, a resort near Guwahati. “We installed a 3D structure using 300 plastic bags generated from a single household over a month. Our motive was to compel people to think how much hazard a single house can cause to nature. This exhibition strengthened my vision of working towards recycled and upcycled products,” Devi says.

Recycled shoe story
Greensole, a social-business venture started by athlete-duo Shriyans Bhandari and Ramesh Dhami, recycles old sport shoes into slippers for the needy. The idea originated with the frequent discarding of sport shoes by both friends. “We used to throw away at least three to four pairs of shoes every year. We learnt that the sole of the sport shoe can be converted into footwear,” says Bhandari, cofounder and chief executive officer, Greensole. They converted their idea into a full-fledged business in December 2013. The major source of funding for Greensole has been prize money and Rs. 1.5 lakh through self-finance. The co-founders have also collected Rs. 7,000 from crowdfunding.

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Greensole has tie-ups with schools and sports clubs and organisations who provide them with discarded shoes, while it purchases recycled ropes from suppliers. The cofounders have also put up drop boxes at public places in Mumbai, Ajmer and Siliguri where people can donate their old shoes. Once the shoes are collected and sorted according to size, they are sent to Greensole’s manufacturing unit in Kurla, Mumbai. Here, the shoes are washed, the sole is then detached using a hot blower. It is washed and wiped with tolin, which helps in disinfection. The shoes are put in a mold to determine the size and pattern. “For those shoes whose soles are in bad condition, we add a layer of recycled material to get it back in shape, and the ones which are completely damaged, we use them to make slippers,” says Bhandari.

Currently, Greensole manufactures about 1,500 slippers every month. It employs five labourers, in addition to interns and volunteers. The labourers have been trained by experts from the Footwear Design and Development Institute, Kolkata. According to Bhandari, about 350 million sport shoes are discarded globally every year. Since these are made up of polyurethane, foam and plastic, they are non-biodegradable and towards the end of their life, they are either dumped or end up in landfills where they are burnt, generating close to two million tonnes of carbon emissions. “A typical pair of synthetic trainers generates about 0.02 tonnes of carbon emission, which is equivalent to a 100-Watt bulb burning for a week. The idea of Greensole is to stretch the life of a shoe, so that it can be reused multiple times as comfortable and eco-friendly slippers,” Bhandari adds.

The company’s motto is to provide a pair of slippers to every needy person in the world by 2023. Sounds ambitious? Bhandari believes it is feasible both in terms of labour and funds. “We have registered in a few international competitions. If we win, we will get about US $1 million in funding and will use the prize money to set up a fully automated unit refurbishing two million shoes a year. Otherwise, we will take investors on board,” he says.

So far, about 110 poor people in Mumbai have benefited from Greensole. The company successfully filed for two industrial design patents in November 2014. They plan to open a factory in Kenya to help the poor in Africa. Tie-ups with the United Nations, Asian Games and Olympics are also on the anvil.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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