Anita Ahuja has turned discarded plastic bags into a valuable resource. She combines principles from enterprise and social service in a new venture that recycles plastic waste and provides employment for ragpickers, one of the most marginalised groups in urban India. Using a proprietary process, they transform discarded plastic bags into a variety of fashionable products that are sold in high-end retail outlets abroad.
The New Idea
In a unique entrepreneurial partnership, Anita works with ragpickers in the city of Delhi, raising their income levels and offering them an alternative to the squalor and grime of garbage dumps. Together with the ragpicker community, she is removing plastic from the waste stream and building a social venture that is profitable and sustainable.
Her organization, Conserve, has created a lucrative business venture out of plastic waste. It employs around three hundred workers and involves them in all aspects of the business, allowing them to build equity and learn useful skills. Through a process she invented, Anita converts discarded plastic bags into large sheets that she uses to make a range of commercially successful goods. The final products—handbags, file folders, coasters, and other household items—are marketed and sold in first-world luxury goods markets, creating the potential for a shift in both how ragpickers perceive their own skills, and in the public perception of ragpickers. Conserve is also a training ground for ragpickers, whom Anita encourages to found their own fabrication units for plastic sheets through an assured buyback arrangement.
The quantity of waste generated in India is far greater than the country’s capacity to collect, manage, and absorb it. The problem is particularly acute in large cities. According to a 2007 study, New Delhi is the largest source of solid waste in the country. Government estimates show that the city generates four thousand tons of waste a day, of which 15 percent is plastic. Plastic clogs urban drainage systems, litters the countryside, and pollutes rivers around the city. But municipal waste is a problem even when it’s properly disposed of; every ten years, the city has to find a new site where it can dump its garbage.
Most programs designed to tackle this major problem have floundered as a result of widespread indifference toward recycling. Furthermore, virgin plastic and new polythene are so cheap that recycling is not considered economical. The plastic waste recycling industry that does exist is both disorganized and unregulated.
Waste collection is a mammoth task and the city municipal corporations often rely on private contractors to carry out the task. Those contractors hire ragpickers, who are poorly paid and work in dangerous and dirty conditions at the bottom of the recycling chain. They sell the plastic they gather to small waste dealers, who, in turn, sell it to larger dealers, who finally make use of the material.
Although ragpickers perform a significant role by reclaiming recyclable waste from the garbage stream, they are regularly exploited by authorities, who demolish their slums for development projects, and by contractors, who do not pay minimum wages. Conservative estimates put the number of ragpickers in the city of New Delhi alone at 80,000. Most are migrants from rural India and neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh. Because they are uneducated, ragpickers generally lack additional skills and alternative sources of income. As some of the poorest members of society, they are disenfranchised and neglected by policy makers.
Their plight is further compounded by India’s deeply entrenched caste system, which dictates that specific castes are born into menial, repetitive, and meagerly paid jobs involving waste management. This creates a self-propagating cycle, where entire communities remain marginalized.
Anita focuses on two intertwined issues: Delhi’s plastic waste crisis and the community of ragpickers who collect and separate garbage, including plastics. Her entrepreneurship model has two components: Ensuring a regular livelihood for the ragpickers and creating commercially successful products from waste plastic through a technology she developed.
Conserve creates large plastic sheets from discarded plastic bags using a process Anita invented and is currently in the process of patenting. Through an innovative amalgamation process, she melts the plastic bags together, creating colorful, durable materials of varying thicknesses. Since the plastic bags come in all colors, different designs can be created using pieces of the original bags instead of additional dyes or inks. Conserve currently operates around a dozen of these innovative machines.
Each new plastic sheet is unique and can be fashioned into products such as diaries, bags, raincoats, and umbrellas. In this manner, Anita is harnessing both technology and the manual labor of ragpickers to recycle waste into commercially valuable products. In doing so, she has been successful at setting up a sustainable and profitable business model for her organisation.
Today, Conserve’s handbags are sold at several high-end retail shops in London, and in the European stores of such well-established labels such as Benetton. Building on her international sales successes, Anita introduced her products to Indian markets, where, following international trends, Conserve’s recycled plastic bags soon became a fashion statement. Aside from haute couture women’s handbags, Conserve also uses existing and established networks of buyers to sell file folders, shoe-racks, storage boxes, tablemats, and coasters. The company makes and sells four thousand handbags a month and expects to achieve sales of over Rs 20 million in 2007, the fourth year of its operations.
Conserve hires poor women in the slums of east Delhi to collect, sort, weigh, and clean plastic bags from the waste generated daily by the city’s 14 million residents. Conserve employs almost three hundred people and pays them approximately Rs 3,000 a month, significantly more than the women would earn selling plastic to the local waste dealer. It offers this poor and disenfranchised segment of society security, identity, and dignity, thereby paving the way for a better life.
Anita has set up learning centers where her employees can take training courses. She also supports the formation of self-help groups so that ragpickers and their families can access educational and skill-building experiences. She has found ways to bridge the class and language divide between her privileged upbringing and that of the ragpickers. For example, she uses the names of Bollywood stars—cultural signifiers understood by all—to describe the colors of her products. She also addresses caste issues in the communities where she works to create a sense of pride, ownership, and independent thinking among the women she employs. To ensure that the ragpicker community benefits equally from the business, Anita creates awareness programs that introduce the principles of competition and fair trade. She also helps ragpickers set up fabrication groups that use her proprietary technology to make plastic sheets to sell to Conserve. In addition to using the technology, the ragpickers are trained to recognize the stringent quality and changing fashion requirements of the European markets where the finished bags are eventually sold. In this way, Anita has successfully involved the ragpicker community in tackling the plastic menace while making them beneficiaries of the process.
Anita’s next step is to increase the scope of Conserve by scaling up its production capacities. She soon hopes to manufacture one million square meters of plastic sheets a year, using 300 tons of waste plastic and employing five hundred rag pickers in the process. She already has buyers lined up and is in talks with international investors. Anita is also looking to replicate her business model in other parts of India and is negotiating with large European chains for additional retail opportunities.
Anita regards her father, who fought for India’s independence from Britain, as a key influence in her life. He exposed her to many idealistic, anti-establishment ideals when she was growing up. She has always been eager to make a social impact on the communities around her and use her privileged background to make a difference among the less fortunate. This inspired her to join the Students Federation of India when she was a college student, and later to write a book on Hindu-Muslim relations in modern India.
When she lived in an exclusive neighborhood in Delhi, she formed a local collective to work with ragpickers. She was also involved in a project to collect kitchen waste from five hundred households and turn it into compost. As this project progressed, she realized how much plastic the residents of her city discard. This discovery set into motion her drive to find a solution that would convert plastic waste into a resource. She started Conserve in 1998.
Anita is acutely aware of the dangers of plastic, and has deliberately chosen to keep herself away from the plastic lobbies in the country. She has turned down offers from international companies to use the plastic generated in their countries, which would have considerable ecological impacts.
Anita lives in Delhi with her husband and two children. Anita also credits her husband, Shalabh, for the success of the project. While she handles more of the social aspects, Shalabh addresses the commercial.