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Tyvek: sustainable substitute or simply ‘less bad’?

1 Mar

This is the final post about our project’s amazing response from India’s corporate world.

After news of the project broke in the Indian media we were contacted by Reebok, Aviva and finally, Dupont.

Dupont is a global science-based products and services company. They’re into…well…everything!

They were keen to work with Conserve India on an upcycling solution for their signage and banner products made from one of the company’s signature materials –Tyvek.

Tyvek is created with finely spun fibers of high density polyethelene. So it’s still a plastic derived from petroleum and could be viewed as ‘less bad’ rather than as a more sustainable alternative to the cheaper PVC signage materials.

But from an upcycling point of view, Tyvek is a very interesting material. It’s incredibly lightweight, strong, water and stain resistant.

Dupont sent us some sample Tyvek sheets (note the logo on the bottom – yep, they were ticket envelopes left over from the Commonwealth Games).

tyvek commonwealth games envelopes

Delhi Commonwealth Games Tyvek ticket envelopes converted to a tote bag

With only half an hour to experiment, Conserve’s design intern (Jenna) whipped up a simple tote bag to show Dupont India staff.

Jenna and the sample Tyvek tote bag

Jenna and the sample Tyvek tote bag

The meeting was positive and, by the time I left India, both Conserve and Dupont were interested in developing an ongoing upcycling partnership.

The corporate interest in Conserve India was a fantastic unexpected outcome from our Commonwealth Games project.

I’m looking forward to sharing the final project results over the next few days.

Liz

Social enterprise: business with benefits

22 Feb Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

So I was procrastinating for some time today, on one of the most amusing blogs I’ve stumbled onto in a while: Why make this? Why indeed.

The moral of the story? Laughing until there’s tears is actually a good way to bring on motivation.  And with that, it’s back to Serious Land…

Following on from our Interview with Anita Ahuja last week, here’s a few images showcasing the social services currently provided by Conserve India.

Many of the Conserve’s production teams (known as fabricators) are based in small workshops around Delhi.

Conserve recently began providing free health services for these workers and I joined them to document an eye clinic held at one of the East Delhi workshops.

The first step was to capture relevant health details such as age, weight and current medical issues…

Conserve India health clinic doctor

Conserve's doctors collect and record patient details

Conserve India health clinic

…Then staff were guided through an eye test.

The doctors get around language and reading challenges by simply asking staff to tell them which way the symbol is facing (on the far right chart)…

Conserve India health clinic eye check chart

Then the eyes are thoroughly examined and…

…prescriptions and treatment advices are given if needed.

Conserve India health clinic eye check  prescription

Conserve is also working with ragpicker communities living in Delhi’s slums, providing mobile health services and…

Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

Jenna and the new mobile medical clinic van

…a school for around 200 children.

Conserve India's school project

Conserve India's school project. Image courtesy of Jenna and Christina.

Jenna and Christina at the Conserve India school

Image courtesy of Jenna and Christina

More soon,

Liz

Plastic Bags: a material with inherent beauty

17 Feb

Today, in our last interview for the ideas hub, we hear from Conserve India’s co-founder, Anita Ahuja.

With an academic background in political science, Anita’s career has encompassed various roles: writer, artist, designer, environmentalist and social activist. Today, she combines all these skills and interests in her work as Conserve’s Creative Director.

1. How did Conserve India begin?

I started Conserve India over 11 years ago, with my friends and family, as a small neighbourhood composting project. But we were also tackling poverty and unemployment by trying to provide an income stream for Delhi’s ragpickers – many of whom live in the city’s slums.

Early on we realized there wasn’t a great local market for selling compost. We also noticed plastic bags were a big waste problem as they weren’t being collected well or recycled. If left as litter on the streets, the bags can clog up drains and get eaten by animals such as cows.

It sounds a little strange, but when I saw plastic bags floating down the street it was almost as if they were calling out to me to do something with them.

Where other people saw waste, I saw a material with inherent beauty.

Anita Ahuja interviewed for french documentary series, Shamengo

Anita Ahuja interviewed for french documentary series, Shamengo

So, with my engineer husband Shalabh and members of our family, I began thinking about how we could use this material.

Through trial and error, we developed a unique heat press technology to make our patented material – Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP).

The plastic bags are collected by the ragpickers, washed and sorted then pressed into sheets of HRP. As it’s mostly done by hand, producing HRP is an energy efficient process.

We also avoid adding any dyes or toxic chemicals – we simply layer the shopping bags until we achieve the colours we desire. I then began experimenting with making and selling HRP products.

About six years ago, Shalabh and I established Conserve HRP, the business arm of Conserve India, so we could lessen our dependence on grants and development funding by generating more income from product sales.

We have since diversified into other materials such as tyre tubes and seatbelt offcuts. Over the years we have attracted very supportive overseas buyers and our organisation has continued to grow.

2. Would you describe Conserve India as a social enterprise?

Yes. Conserve is a hybrid organisation – we are a registered non-governmental organisation (Conserve India) supported by the export business (Conserve HRP). Conserve HRP buys the sheets of handmade recycled plastic from the NGO side.

I don’t think working for profit is a bad thing – it’s good to diversify your income streams. It’s what you do with those profits that defines your organisation.

Although our business arm makes a profit, that’s only one third of the triple bottom line. You wouldn’t get the full picture of Conserve India if you only looked at turnover. We are strongly committed to the social and environmental outcomes in what we do.

Our success in exporting products made from waste, or upcycled products, allows us to pay fair wages and plough profits back into health and education services for our staff and their families.

The 'Robin' HRP messenger bag

The 'Robin' HRP messenger bag

In a traditional corporation you would probably view these services a additional perks or benefits of working there.

But many of our staff come from the poorest communities in Delhi and struggle to access enough income, let alone education and health care; so the social development aspect is a fundamental part of our mission.

3. What are some of the challenges you have overcome in establishing this organisation?

In Delhi it’s actually illegal for people to pick through waste. Once it reaches the local dhalaos (neighborhood collection and recycling centres) it becomes the property of the municipal authorities.

The ragpickers are only tolerated at these centres because of the obvious waste reduction and cost saving benefits they bring by sorting and extracting the recyclables from rubbish.

So working with the ragpickers, we are dealing with a caste of people with very few rights or social standing.

Because of these issues, and the perception of our work as dirty and unhealthy, at the beginning we found it hard to rent space for sorting and washing the plastic bags.

A Conserve India washing unit

A Conserve India washing unit

We also found it difficult to have HRP products officially recognized as handicraft by the Indian government because it’s an innovative material and not over 500 years old.

If we could have achieved this it would have made it easier for us to sell our products through government-sanctioned emporiums in India.

But we’ve managed to survive by focusing our efforts on the export market and the many supportive buyers we’ve found overseas.

With an unskilled workforce – many of our staff can’t read or write – we’ve had to be very inventive in setting up our production processes.

For example, we named all the different coloured bags after well-known Bollywood stars and used their pictures to identify piles of the same coloured plastic.

But finding creative ways to address such issues is what I enjoy about this work; if you believe in what you’re doing, you can always find a way to solve a problem.

4. What about the future?

We are constantly on the lookout for new business opportunities.

The Conserve Delhi 2010 Project opened up the possibility for us to continue developing products with major event waste.

The project also stirred up interest from several corporations leaving us with potential for working in the domestic market.

We’ve also had many inquiries from around the world about our process for manufacturing HRP and we’re considering franchising our patent on the technology.

At present we are shifting our operations to a new, purpose built factory on the west of Delhi. It’s an exciting transition, where we hope to employ more staff and transform even more waste materials into new and valuable products.

Anita and Shalabh Ahuja at the new Conserve India factory

Anita and Shalabh Ahuja at the new Conserve India factory

Upcycling: like playing Hacky Sack with materials…

11 Feb checking out the fence bunting

There were quite a few Games waste materials we identified during and just after the event. But establishing a viable upcycled product range takes quite a bit more than just finding materials.

Can the material be made into products fitting our current brand and organisational capacity? Can we afford to store enough of it? What about the product testing?

And of course, there’s the market development work – not many businesses can afford to produce products without some sort of guarantee they’ll sell.

So we had to be careful about which materials we accepted from the Games. Apart from the PVC banners we actively targeted, we were offered a few other interesting materials:

  • Recyclable waste directly from the Games Organising Committee Headquarters. This was mostly office waste – paper, cardboard and plastic bottles. Although Zitta Schnitt’s fabulous open source PET bottle purse designdid make us stop and ponder for a moment……………………we decided most of the materials weren’t suitable for durable fashion and homeware products.

    Delhi 2010 Games Organising Committee Headquarters

    Delhi 2010 Games Organising Committee Headquarters - inside and out

  • Temporary fencing and bunting cloth – during the Games, many events were cordoned off with thousands of temporary fences. We were offered these materials during the de-commisioning process after the event. We contemplated taking a small number of fences to trial some industrial furniture items (such as lampstands and shelving) as well as simple drawstring gym bags from the bunting material. But due to storage issues and the uncertainty factor regarding sales we had to say no.
Games fences and bunting

Delhi 2010 temporary fencing and bunting material

checking out the fence bunting

You watch the athletes, we'll feel the fence. Scoping out venue bunting material.

  • Unused Delhi 2010 Games ticket envelopes made from Tyvek plastic – this was such an interesting material I’m dedicating tomorrow’s post to it.

So, there’s a lot to do in realising an upcycling business opportunity. One of the ideas we had about securing a buyer for our Games products was to approach upcoming major events – such as the 2012 London Olympics and the 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games – regarding upcycled merchandise.

Instead of cheap Chinese imports (like these merchandising items at one of the Delhi 2010 retail outlets)…

Merch cushion covers

Is pillow fighting a Games sport?! Random cushion covers on sale at Delhi 2010 retail store

gamesmerch2

Fuzzy plastic cars and things. What the...

…why not products made directly from materials left over from the last mega event?

Can you see where i’m going with this?

Imagine: closing the loop on waste from one major event to the next; like playing hacky sack with materials for as long as you can.

It’s a big idea and one, I’m certain, with many challenges to be overcome. But it’s not impossible to change a human system is it?

We got a little excited by the possibilities and dashed off a few emails to the London 2o12 and Glasgow 2014 organising committees but, alas, no cigar.

Not even a polite ‘thanks but no thanks’ email.

These events are organised many years in advance and perhaps, for the London Olympics at least, the most sustainable products have already been secured for their branded merchandise? This is, after all, meant to be the ‘first sustainable Olympic and Paralympic Games’. London 2012 Sustainability Plan, 2009

But when I logged on to the London 2012 shop I was surprised to find little, if any, details about the products other than most came from the manufacturer to the world – China.

Take, for example, a simple drawstring gym bag (sound familiar?) It’s made from polyester and quite cheap at  7 pounds. You could argue the Olympics, in an effort to be inclusive, has gone for low priced merchandise.

But then there’s the Stella McCartney Team Great Britain gym bag at almost 4 times the price – China and polyester again.

Maybe the sustainability credentials for each product just haven’t been made public? Maybe the organisers thought it wouldn’t make a difference to sales.

Maybe.

But it would be nice to have a choice, wouldn’t it?

Shoes with soul?

9 Jan Handmade recycled plastic sandals

Remember how we were contacted by several corporates after news articles were published on our project? One such contact came from the footwear team at Reebok India. They wanted to know if Conserve India could make upcycled shoes.

Turns out the Conserve India crew have been testing shoe designs for quite a while now – even creating samples – using a wide range of discarded materials from tyre tubes to seatbelts and handmade recycled plastic (shopping bags). Here’s a sneak preview of a few of their styles:

Conserve India mixed materials shoe samples

Conserve India mixed materials shoe samples

Conserve India seatbelt slipons

Jenna models Conserve India's seatbelt slipons

Conserve India seatbelt slipons - showing gold mesh handmade recycled plastic inlay

Conserve India seatbelt slipons - showing gold mesh handmade recycled plastic inlay

Handmade recycled plastic sandals

Handmade recycled plastic sandals

Tyre tube closed toe shoe and men's chappals (slip-on sandal)

Tyre tube closed toe shoe and men's chappals (slip-on sandal)

I particularly love the HRP sandals, with the sherbety pinks and pastel blues of the original shopping bags. Yep, that’s right, no inks or dyes are added during the production process, the single-use shopping bags are simply layered to create the desired shades. Which ones do you like?

Conserve is not yet producing shoes commercially, as they are waiting to move to a new purpose built factory in Bahadurgah on Delhi’s west (more on that soon). But the partnership interest from Reebok definitely presents new and exciting possibilities for a profitable upcycled shoe range – we’ll let you know how it progresses.

In the meantime, I got to wondering if there were any other upcycling or socially responsible shoe manufacturers already selling products. Here’s what I found with a quick internet search:

  • Simple Shoes – check out their impressive range of recycled and sustainable materials
  • Tom’s Shoes – not so much a focus on environmental considerations (although they do have a vegan range), but they’re tackling a global social challenge with a great model –  for every pair of shoes sold by this US company a pair is given to a child who needs them. And by the looks of their website, the idea is gathering a lot of support…
  • Etiko – award winning, Aussie company making shoes from sustainable materials and working with fairtrade suppliers

So, dear readers, a few ways to go forth, flex your consumer muscle…

Christina and Jenna product testing in Reebok's Connaught Place store

Christina and Jenna product testing in Reebok's Connaught Place store

…and tread lightly. If you know of any other companies doing good things in footwear we’d love to hear about it.

From banners to schools

6 Dec

“Um, so Dave what kind of vehicle will we need to pick up the banner?” We hadn’t really nutted out the logistics of collecting a 20m x 20m, 170kg piece of mesh PVC.

So, taking an educated guess and with fingers well crossed, we borrowed a Conserve India work car and arrived to find ICON’s British riggers resting on the already neatly folded banner. (We were too late to watch them repelling down the side of the building – dang! These guys were professionals – travelling straight from the airport, harnessing up and getting the job done within half an hour. Jet lag? Meh, what jet lag?)

Folding the Aviva banner

ICON's riggers folding the You are the Big Picture banner at Statesman House, Delhi

Transporting the Aviva banner

Loading up the banner haul at Statesman House, Delhi

collecting unexpected materials from Aviva

Don't know what to do with your carabeenas? We'll take 'em!

And here’s what we plan to make with the banner…

Stationery samples made from Commonwealth Games waste

Closing the loop with stationery samples made from Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games waste materials

Pencil case made from Delhi Commonwealth Games waste

Pencil case upcycled from Delhi Commonwealth Games waste

The diligent team in Conserve’s sampling unit whipped up these school products so we could convince Aviva to upcycle with us.

As I mentioned yesterday, Aviva is funding education programs around the world focussing on supporting street children with schooling or training opportunities. In India, Aviva’s main ‘Street to School’ partners are Save the Children and CRY. So we figured why not make products that Aviva can take back and use in these initiatives?

Material reaching the end of it’s first life, reincarnated and sold as products for those most in need: closing the loop with a little dash of soul.

But it’s not over yet, dear readers, this partnership with Aviva was a small, unexpected outcome emerging from our Games project.

There’s still a lot of Commonwealth Games waste material we’re trying to create products with. Stay with us as our upcycling adventure continues to unfold…

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