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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

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Another day, another dhalao

26 Feb

When I arrived in Delhi monsoon was still in full swing. The days were hot and muggy and you could only sleep with a fan or air conditioner.

A few days after I’d moved into my apartment, I decided to treat myself at the local ice cream parlour. The icecream was great but, at 80 rupees a scoop, definitely pricey.

On my stroll home I passed my neighbourhood dhalao, or waste collection centre.

Neighbourhood dhalao south delhi

Kailash Colony, South Delhi neighbourhood dhalao

It was getting dark, so I was startled by something scrabbling through the rotting food scraps, crumpled packaging and broken bits of crockery.

It was a man.Ragpicker sorting waste

He stopped his sorting and turned towards me. We looked at each other for a moment.

It would be weeks before I understood the vital role he played in recycling my daily domestic waste.

I didn’t yet know that my ice cream cost around the same amount of money he would earn on an average day.

It would also be some time before I would learn about the Delhi government’s plans to remove the dhalaos (and his workspace) from the city.

And I certainly would never have predicted that one day, a couple of months from that moment, I would smash a glass bottle in my kitchen, then fret about how to dispose of the shards.

Because I would know then that Delhi’s recycling is often done by people with bare hands and no protective clothing.

But I wasn’t concerned with any of this then.

I just glanced away from him and continued walking.

He turned back to his work.

And I ate expensive ice cream.

Ragpicker collecting recyclables

Insane in the membrane…

24 Feb

Ok, so we’re heading into the home stretch with this project blog (just over a week to go until my final deadline: Sunday March 6). I know it’s been a while since I’ve posted about the Games PVC banner material.

So what happened to all those banners – all 25 tonnes of them?

Commonwealth Games banners scrap

Commonwealth Games banners stored at the warehouse

We made a heap of products and sold them for stash of cash, right?

Not quite.

I was trialling one of the sample PVC bags, taking it to all my meetings, usually stuffed full of things like a Macbook laptop and a waterbottle (no point mucking around when it comes to R&D).

using the Games messenger bags

On the way to a 'very important' meeting at the 2010 Commonwealth Games

A few weeks of this and I began noticing cracks in the folds – the PVC banners from the Games media event just weren’t durable enough for a bag in constant use. But what about the official Games wall wrap banners? Could we still use them?

Checking out the banner material with Conserve India's sampling unit

Checking out the wall wrap banner material with Conserve India's sampling unit

Sadly, it turned out they were made of a similar form of PVC.

It’s called blackout flex – basically polyester thread spray painted with a thin PVC resin coating. Great for cheap, temporary advertising applications, but not so good for a high-end, durable fashion accessory.

It felt like we’d hit a dead end with our Games upcycling experiment. We made one last visit to the warehouse, thinking we’d collect a couple of the wall wraps for future experiments with the material.

But when we arrived we noticed these…

Commonwealth Games athlete flags

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games street flags

Sponsor flags

Air India and Tissot Games sponsor flags - major brands being trashed...literally

trashed brands

Hero Honda and Central Bank of India: do you know where your brand is being dumped?

They were street flags, strung up across the city for the Games and made from a tougher form of PVC (blockout flex).

So, with clouds of disappointment rapidly lifting, we took as many of the flags as we could manage and hurried back to Conserve’s workshop.

As for the wall wrap banners, as far as we know, they were sold as cheap scrap to the city’s waste dealers. We’d like to think they ended up serving a useful second purpose. However, we can’t be certain.

But one thing is for sure, dear readers, it’s a little insane in the brain making so many of them in the first place, let alone without much thought for what happens to them when the party is over.

Looking forward to showing you what we did with the flags…

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

Sustainability: is it all in the numbers?

15 Feb

While at home over Christmas I stumbled across an old social studies exercise book from my primary school days.

Apart from a cover page emblazoned with a hand-drawn, bright red boom box (and quoting that iconic cinematic masterpiece – Electric Boogaloo) I was struck by this population chart…

population chart liz franzmann

Image courtesy of the author's parentally managed archives

It shows that, even in the mid-eighties, we had fairly accurately predicted our global population would exceed six billion by the new millenium.

And if a little kid in a small South-East Queensland town knew about it, it’s fairly certain a lot of other people did too. The environmental impact of our growing global population is a hotly debated topic, with many perspectives.

But it does appear this exponential chart is intimately connected to many of the sustainability challenges we face today.

As Motu, our sustainability wombat, explains in under 60 seconds – we live on one planet and everything’s connected. So a major shift in one area is bound to impact on other parts of our world.

This post is simply reflecting on the fact that there are a lot of us on the planet; a lot more than in the eighties anyway.

And it seems more certain we will have to ride waves of change together, rather than apart…

 

 

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?

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