From experiment to craft to industry: Upcycling India’s household waste

By Manisha SGonDec. 07, 2015in Environment and Ecology

Written specially for Vikalp Sangam

In an experiment to work with upcycling, eCoexist, a social enterprise based in Pune, started four years ago with a fairly humble item that got thrown away in household waste. The papier-mâché egg crate. This is a packaging material made of paper that ensures that eggs do not break in transit from one place to another. It is not a hazardous material as papier-mâché is biodegradable but it is an easy material to work with and requires a low level of overall skill.

Egg crates are a simple household waste item
Egg crates are a simple household waste item

As in the case of most upcycling projects, the first step is segregation and collection, ideally directly from peoples homes. Since eggs are protected by their own shells, the papier-mâché crates functioned primarily as shock absorbers and did not get soiled by the eggs. This made it easier to reuse them if they were kept aside by residents. Rag pickers were paid an amount per crate they brought in, to give them an incentive to collect.

Integrating the specific item into mainstream waste collection so ragpickers can earn from it
Integrating the specific item into mainstream waste collection so ragpickers can earn from it
Sorting out the egg crates that come in and storing them
Sorting out the egg crates that come in and storing them

The first and best way to reuse the crates would have been to put them back into the cycle that generated them , i.e. to reuse them as egg crates again. We tried to contact the manufacturers and convince them, but there was a hygiene issue involved as it was food we were talking about.

The second option was to take advantage of the form of the egg crates , which could, for example, lend itself to sound insulation as it trapped air in it. eCoexist took the option of crafting the egg crates forms into small decorative flowers and converting them into lights for festivals. The skill required for this was not much and could easily be taught to underprivileged groups to generate larger quantities of lights. The project could become income generating for these groups.

Playing with the form of the egg crate
Playing with the form of the egg crate

Since the egg crates come with a layer of wax on them, painting them was not easy and we resorted to the use of acryclic paints after trying out several natural options. The idea was that we could make a range with and one without paint to start developing a different aesthetic taste among consumers.

Making festive lights out of the egg crate flowers
Making festive lights out of the egg crate flowers

The next possibility with the balance waste remaining after this was done, was to repulp it into paper mache and make other moulded items out of them. With the help of a design team, Studio Alternatives, eCoexist has been working on the idea of making a biodegradable dustbin out of paper mache. The intention is that rather than using plastic bags to line plastic trash cans, the entire bin itself could be thrown away after several months of use, and would not cause any pollution.

Pulping the crates to remould them into completely new objects
Pulping the crates to remould them into completely new objects

This simple project to explore the possibilities of upcycling have brought us several important lessons and understanding about household waste management.

  1. Education needs to start with householders themselves – when they see that there could be a use for an item if kept aside they may be inspired to do so.
  2. During the daily waste collection rounds, rag pickers cannot carry each item separately hence householders need to be willing to store items for some time until they can be collected. This is easier to do for items that are not soiled by food.
  3. Food packaging waste is not easy to plug back into the industry it came from, as there are hygiene issues involved.
  4. For upcycled products to be marketable, they need to either fit a very specific niche of use or be attractive enough to appeal to consumers.
  5. To become a handicraft small scale industry, the project has to be replicable and scalable. The skills required should be easy to impart and the project should include as many producer groups as it can.
  6. The speed at which the waste is collected from homes and the speed at which it is converted into upcycled products may not match. This means storage will be needed. Storing waste poses several challenges in terms of hygiene and cost.
  7. The cost of the final product has to cover the labour of the entire process from collection to cleaning, design, training and production. If this final cost is much higher than a comparable fresh product, it is likely that the recycled product may not be able to become competitive in the market.
  8. Upcycled products themselves will have a certain lifespan. What happens to them after this is over is also the responsibility of the designer.

These articles form a series in the Green Idea campaign called The Beauty of Recycling conducted by eCoexist and Studio Alternatives and sponsored by the Government of Maharashtra, Environment Department. They aim to raise awareness about the aesthetic and financial potential of recycling. Visit eCoexist for more.

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