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Upcycling and street style

4 Mar Commonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot

My final 24 hours in Delhi proved quite busy. We were lucky to have a travelling American artist/photographer, Joey Edwards, join us for our last street shoot.

Joey had volunteered with Conserve India a few years ago and was dropping in to the office to say hi. We, of course, jumped at the chance to have an extra photographer for our planned photoshoot at Delhi’s Connaught Place shopping centre.

And here are the citizens of Delhi who graciously stopped to model our bags. Amazingly, these lovely ladies knew about the project because they’d read about it in the papersCommonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot

…and we thought our next model, Sujay, looked far more stylish than the United Colours of Bennetton mannequins we snapped him in front of (especially their hair arrangements…or lack thereof).

Commonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot 2

Commonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot 3

…We loved how Sumit’s dark clothing highlighted the bright colours of our Games messenger bag…

Commonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot 4

…and, finally, the very obliging Anyad and Mrinali, lending us their unique looks for this photo…

Commonwealth Games upcycled bags photoshoot 5

What was great about the shoot was that people got the idea quickly; they understood what we were trying to do.

We were overjoyed with their show of support (and the photos – thanks Joey and Jenna!)…

…like Shammi Kapoor (the ‘Elvis of Bollywood’) on seeing his true love…

…or Rahat Fateh Ali Khan mid-flight in song…

…Gold!


Making good things out of Games waste…

2 Mar

Today we reveal where our roller-coaster race to catch Games waste ended. Just as we thought we’d failed to find a material we could work with, we stumbled across high quality PVC street flags.

We rushed a small number of them back to the Conserve India sampling unit to start working on bag designs…

discussing Commonwealth Games waste design challenge

Conserve's design intern, Christina and the Conserve India sampling unit - Moksud, Inam and Sajit - discussing the Games design challenges

Conserve’s staff were incredibly busy meeting orders at the time so, to speed up the sampling process, we agreed to try modifying established designs with the PVC material. And here’s what the team created…

Sajit and the Commonwealth Games bag samples

Sajit and the Commonwealth Games bag samples (on left)

I decided to get a few shots of the bags around the workshop…

Delhi 2010 Games messenger sample bag

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games messenger bag (sample) made from athlete flags and wall wrap banner insert

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games messenger bag (sample) made from athlete flags

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games messenger bag (sample) made from athlete flags

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games 'Breeda' bag (sample)

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games 'Breeda' bag (sample) - Games banners and tyre tubing

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games 'Breeda' bag (sample) with denim lining

Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games 'Breeda' bag (sample) with denim lining

Look! It's a bird!...No, wait....it's Commonwealth Games waste...upcycled!

But would Delhi’s citizens appreciate these products?

Wait till you see who volunteered to model our bags in the middle of the city’s most exclusive shopping district…

Tomorrow, dear readers, tomorrow…

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

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.

Festival perspective

14 Dec

For our final instalment in the Conserve Delhi 2010 ideas hub I’d like to share a response from Riki Edelsten, Partnership and Resources Manager at one of Melbourne’s premier community events: the Sustainable Living Festival.

SLF River Crowds

Sustainable Living Festival crowds along the Yarra River

Over the past decade the Sustainable Living Festival has inspired large audiences to live more sustainably, by showcasing and celebrating sustainability in the heart of Melbourne city.

Much has changed since the first Festival in 1998, held in regional Victoria and attended by just over 2,000 devoted innovators: the Festival now attracts over 120,000 visits to the event in Federation Square each February.

In 2011 the Festival is expanding to meet people where they’re at. Inspired by successful community engagement and mobilisation models from around the world, the 2011 Festival two week extended format is reaching out into our streets and suburbs engaging new audiences on local and global issues and relevant solutions.

This will be the fifth year I have been involved with the Festival. I began as a volunteer in 2006, producing Festival communication materials. Then I went on to find employment with a major sponsor of the Festival, the Victorian Government’s lead agency on Climate Change, Sustainability Victoria.  This year I’ve returned as part of the Festival core team and I’m loving it!

2011 Sustainable Living Festival website: http://festival.slf.org.au/

1. What’s the motivation behind the Sustainable Living Festival?

The ongoing goal of the Sustainable Living Festival is to accelerate community uptake of sustainability. Therefore we were delighted that 90% of visitors to the Festival believed that information from the 2010 Festival will help them to take action to live more sustainably.

2. How do you deliver the Festival with minimal environmental impact?

The Festival aims to walk the talk in event production. Each Festival our team work hard to deliver an event following our ‘Own Practice’ principles:

Cyclic – creating no waste

Solar – using clean energy

Efficient – running with less

Safe – ensuring its harmless

Social – caring for people

Smart – adapting to change

Some of the ways we deliver on these principles are:

  • The Festival uses 100% accredited GreenPower.
  • Promotional materials are printed using a waterless printing process, vegetable based inks and forest-friendly paper stocks or recycled waste paper.
  • Throughout the Festival a well-signed, four-bin system encourages attendees to separate paper, glass, cans, plastic, and food waste for compost and recycling. A waste wise ‘menu’ is also available at tables in the café area, informing patrons about our system and how they can use it.
  • Another great sustainability workout for our volunteers is the Wash Against Waste (WAW) stand. At WAW, a team of volunteers washes and dries used plates and cutlery from Festival food venders, thereby eliminating the need for disposable food and beverage containers. So popular is this concept that the Sustainable Living Foundation developed a WAW service to deliver to other festivals around the Victoria.

For more on the Festival’s own practice principles check out our website.

3. What are the main challenges you’ve overcome?

The main challenges are staging a Festival through a team that is made up of primarily volunteers. With a limited budget, employment periods are short which makes forward planning near impossible.

4.  What are the main types of waste created at the SLF festival and what’s the most unusual waste stream you’ve had to deal with?

Probably not highly unusual, but definitely an unexpected waste stream, were plastis cups supplied by one of our partner organizations in 2009, accounting for the sharp rise in rubbish to landfill.

slf waste statistics

Sustainable Living Festival waste management statistics

5. Have you ever heard of upcycling being done with waste after an event like the Commonwealth Games? If not, how do you think it can be best included in major event production and management?

No, I’ve never heard of waste from an event being upcycled. The best way to include it into an on-going event is with a sales or marketing edge, illustrating a point of difference to event patrons. Imagine if waste from an event was made into products that were sold at the next event – like promotional, branded reuseable cups/bags/water bottles – then the upcycling tells a story event patrons feel a part of. The upcycled promotional products become the outfits of a subculture.

6. What kind of upcycled products would you make from major event waste?

Festival belts with pouches to carry your essential festival kit, water bottles, crockery and cutlery. Items that can be used at the event.

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