Recycling plastic waste into hand bags at Conserve India
Waste management is a huge concern in Indian cities. Ashoka Fellow Anita Ahuja’s brainchild Conserve India is an attempt at eco-entrepreneurship and works to uplift the rag picker community of Delhi. Plastic bags are up-scaled i.e. washed, pressed and converted into sheets and then used innovatively in high-end fashion accessories. The materials in seat belts and old denims are recycled into hand-bags which are mainly exported to Paris, Marseilles, Amsterdam, Berlin, Brussels, Hannover and Canberra.
The enterprise began in 2003, combining the creative mindset of Anita and her husband Shalabh’s engineering talents. They first tried making carpets from recycled plastic but the output looked home made. Shalabh devised a machine that could mass produce plastic sheets. A designer friend asked for the collected plastic to make hand bags. Trial and error and some designs led to few wine bags and carry bags and a factory soon came up. Roadside tailors sewed the bags and this assortment of bags was sold at trade fairs and embassies. A customer at one trade fair asked for a bigger hand-bag and said she was willing to pay more. Thus, this venture eventually turned into a fledgling organization supporting over 400 rag pickers.
Anita researched on recycling technologies on the internet and extended it to making handmade recycled plastic (thin film shopping thailis) which she then used across 4 product lines in their venture. Fashion bags, messenger bags, wash bags, computer and travel bags, cushions, rugs, bracelets and belts are the products. In these products 40% is trash-plastic and the rest comprises of rubber tubes, fabric and seat belt materials. Conserve India has joined with Fair Trade for marketing and the products can be bought online too.
This venture used an unreasonable produce, the plastic collected from the filth and rubbish of India and converted it into high-end fashion products. Conserve India uses the profit to run social projects like schools and health clinics for the rag-pickers working for Conserve. The rag pickers are also given training and assisted with loans to start a new business. The moot point, however, made by Anita, is that rag pickers do not want to continue picking rag for a living. This is because Conserve India pays the rag pickers working here three times of what they get outside. The word "profession" seems to be a misnomer if used in context of the rag pickers because of the hazardous conditions and life of this work.
Nevertheless, destitution often makes street-children and street-dwellers beg or pick rags. Till the state can do something concrete in providing alternative and viable employment or schooling and shelter, more than 150000 rag pickers (from Delhi alone) have a bleak future. Therefore Anita Ahuja’s story and effort is a torchbearer of hope in these grim circumstances.