Meet India’s New Recyclistas

'The Soft Briefcase' at Rogue 'N' Rags, Rs 10,800
‘The Soft Briefcase’ at Rogue ‘N’ Rags, Rs 10,800

The trouble with car tyres is that they weren’t designed to be used in handbags one could carry to a Page 3 event. No, they insist on being curved, not flat enough to use in one long satisfying strip, and besides, they have steel and other undesirable elements embedded in them. In that sense, used tyre tubes are much better – they are grooveless, plain rubber, and have absolutely no use to anyone in the world except the homeless who burn them for warmth in winter, and we all know that causes pollution. It’s far more responsible to wear them on your arm instead. Far more fashionable too.

Poonam Nanda, head of production at Rogue ‘N’ Rags, multitasks with ease. She switches between explaining the making of tyre bags, cuddling Brandy the Lhasa Apso, casting a critical gaze over finished bags and wallets, and checking the threadwork of half a dozen cobbler-turned-bagmakers in the firm’s Delhi workshop. For over two decades, Nanda headed an American garment production house, where she led teams of thousands of workers in Jordan, Kenya, India and Mauritius as they churned out millions of garments daily, from T-shirts to jogging pants. The pace of life at the East of Kailash-based firm, where they make only a few hundred fashion accessories a month, is slow but satisfying. After all, she’s using her skills to save the environment and get rag-picker children off the streets.

(L-R) Sunny Sharma and Poonam Nanda
(L-R) Sunny Sharma and Poonam Nanda

That was precisely the intention behind starting Rogue ‘N’ Rags, says founder Sunny Sharma, an NRI businessman who once ran six fashion stores across England for over a decade. Shaken by the 2008 recession, which brought the total number of stores down to one in Worcestershire, he returned to India to develop a fashion product that could set an example in sustainable luxury and empower entire communities in the process. After years of research, and a tie-up with Mira Nair’s NGO Salaam Baalak Trust, he set up his first Delhi store at DLF Saket mall earlier this year, where curious customers run fingers over bags, wallets, laptop cases and briefcases ranging from Rs 390 to Rs 20,000, made of recycled tyre tubes, discarded tetra packs and polypropylene sheets (used for packets of potato chips) from landfills around Delhi, and junk swatches of silk from garment factories in Bangalore. Two new designs are added every week, and no two items are ever the same. Profits are recycled too – they go back to the social endeavour of making lives better for underage rag-pickers.

Pioneers of Clean India
Sharma is one of a growing breed of Indian entrepreneurs who began executing their vision of a clean India long before Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced his Swacch Bharat mission. Armed with laptops, smartphones and management degrees, and driven by the idea of social change and empowerment, these ‘recyclistas’ use a profit model to incentivise ‘upcycling’ of waste for lifestyle products and functional works of art. No doubt, India is an evolved market for recycled materials with even listed companies doing their bit – for instance, Arora Fibres recycles discarded plastic into packaging material and Cerebra Integrated Technologies recycles e-waste – besides several smaller manufacturers that recycle polluted water for potable use and animal dung for fuel. In recent years, however, the more artistically inclined have been pursuing another kind of recycling – that of beautifying our living spaces with the very things we throw out.

Vinyl record clocks by WorkshopQ
Vinyl record clocks by WorkshopQ

Jaipur-born sisters Radhika Khaitan Mittal, 28, and Madhvi Khaitan, 27, both studied finance, accounting and visual marketing in UK and US before they set up WorkshopQ in 2010, using aluminum strips thrown out by a friend from his factory as inspiration for a career in recycled product design. They then collected steel, felt and wood scrap from their father’s steel factories, and plastic, corks, silicon waste, bicycle chains and vinyl records from junkyards around Jaipur to create trendy, quirky works of functional art.

Having a steel tycoon as dad helped save rent and electricity costs while their own education helped deal with costing, revenue models and forex, says Mittal. “We were clear that we did not want to make something that looked recycled – it had to look new and cool,” she says, recalling that it took eight months and an initial investment of Rs 50,000 to develop a small range of products they could catalogue in seven pages. “Our catalogue is now 48 pages long and covers dozens of products, from coasters, to mirrors, to trays and lamps, priced from Rs 50 to Rs 7,000. We paid our dad back within a year,” she adds. She points to a lamp made of discarded candy wrappers. “Isn’t it a pleasure to see candy wrappers sitting useful on your table instead of choking a dog or cow’s throat?”

(L-R) Madhvi Khaitan and Radhika Khaitan Mittal
(L-R) Madhvi Khaitan and Radhika Khaitan Mittal

Despite a ban on plastic bags since 2010, Jaipur still produces 16 metric tonnes of plastic waste every year, more than its counterparts where a ban is in place. The sisters, unsurprisingly, are both vegetarian and animal-lovers too. Khaitan also works with FIAPO, a conglomerate of animal activist groups across India. WorkshopQ now retails from all major Indian e-retailers and exports bulk orders to New Zealand, England and Kuwait.

One of the stores they retail from is Green the Gap in Hauz Khas, Delhi, the retail arm of Sweccha Foundation, set up over a decade ago by environmental activist Vimlendu Jha to help save the Yamuna river. Nestled inside Khirki Extension in Delhi – a paradoxical land where slums sit pretty next to imposing villas, and where ‘arty’ folks walk the same unpaved path as urban villagers – the head office of Sweccha is probably India’s first completely ‘upcycled’ workplace. Surprises and stories abound at every turn here – a chandelier made of Diet Coke cans; bicycle wheels used as workstation dividers; old cassette covers spelling ‘F’ on the women’s toilet and even a lamp made of a car silencer – and a devoted team works on perhaps India’s only retail brand that specialises 100% in recycled and upcycled products.

Taking Ecology Mainstream

Room divider made of old bicycle wheels at Sweccha's Delhi office.
Room divider made of old bicycle wheels at Sweccha’s Delhi office.

Launched in 2008 to take environmental protection into mainstream discourse and to tackle issues of waste management and sweatshop exploitation, Green the Gap not only creates its own wide range of recycled products, they also serve as the conduit for other likeminded producers to reach a wider audience. Notable among the 24 brands they offer are Haathi Chaap – founded by Mahima Mehra and Vijendra Shekhawat who found a way to turn elephant dung into handmade (odour-free) paper – and Oh! Gourd, run by sisters Kriya and Leony Rynjah, who make lamps, loofahs and other products using gourd and bamboo from their gardens.

An alumnus of St Stephen’s college in Delhi and Tata Institute of Social Sciences in Mumbai, 34-year-old Jha believes that, with Sweccha, he has been able to balance his personal drive with his financial and social needs. He got into recycled lifestyle products by accident. “I made a bag from waste material that a bureaucrat friend really liked. He placed an order for 200 of them, which I outsourced to a bag maker,” he recalls of his first consignment. “When I went to the workshop to check on the progress, I found 12 children working in one dingy room, making my so-called eco-friendly bags,” Jha adds, explaining why his decision to launch Green the Gap – which now has an annual turnover of Rs 1 crore – is not just about products but people. “It’s a market-created misconception that poor families need their kids to work – factory owners prefer kids because they come cheap. In truth, all kids deserve an education. We have to create that choice by incentivising it,” says the TEDx speaker, who was one of six change-makers in CNN International’s Be the Change programme in 2007. Sweccha targets the youth – at any given time, there are a handful of eager students and interns in his office.

Handling them all is programme manager Deeksha Bhatia, who manages Sweccha’s environmental modules for schoolchildren and the brand’s ecommerce activities. “We collect tyres, Mother Dairy packets, beer cans, rice jholas, leather strips, flex billboards and of course tetra packs,” says the 25-year-old, standing in their little warehouse with finished products. “Everything can be recycled. You don’t choose the product; the product chooses you,” she smiles, quoting Jha.

The Price Factor

Vimlendu Jha, founder, Sweccha Foundation and Green the Gap
Vimlendu Jha, founder, Sweccha Foundation and Green the Gap

All the businesses we spoke to are beset by queries on why recycled products cost more than new ones. “Making a recycled product is a labour-intensive process. One needs to sift through garbage, and it takes much more effort and imagination to make a tyre bag than a leather one,” explains Bhatia. “There is also a longer sterilisation procedure, so the end product naturally costs more.” Consumers, however, do not care as much for saving the environment as they do for beautiful possessions. “Most of our buyers are attracted by the design, quality or utility of the product, not the cause,” admits Mittal of WorkshopQ. Jha agrees: “The growing demand is not due to greater environmental awareness. It’s due to a growing culture of consumption.”

It’s no wonder, then, that the business policy of these social enterprises is, “Don’t sell poverty; sell the product.” If, with a few more e-shopping clicks, the consuming classes end up contributing to a cleaner India, they have these motivated young people to thank.

First published in The Economic Times

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