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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!


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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…

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

Art = Upcycling?

12 Jan

“Rosalie’s gone under. It’s nuts. We went down to help but were turned away. We’re ok for now.” This was the response from my sister in Red Hill this morning, when I contacted her about the floods in Brisbane. Most of my family live there so the past 24 hours have been a little worrying.

And it seems incredible that only last week I was at the 21st Century Art exhibition at the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art. (GOMA is right on the Brisbane River and could be seriously affected by the rising water.)

As soon as I stepped through the gallery door I was greeted by what looked like a vast, plastic egg sack hanging from the roof.

Goma bags

GOMA's 21st Century Art installation view of Pascale Marthine Tayou’s Plastic bags 2001-10 | Photography by Natasha Harth

It made me a little overwhelmed and nervous. I felt as if, at any moment, the sack would split open, unleashing a trillion more plastic bags upon us, and I found myself giving it a wide berth. (And now I’m concerned it’s floating down the river.)

At the time, it made me reflect on a trend I’ve been noticing recently – that of contemporary artists repurposing and reusing discarded materials to create new works of art; like this installation inside the New Delhi Railway Station…

Chai Garam - Upcycled Art

Naresh Kapuria, Chai Garam, New Delhi Railway Station (2010)

…And this piece at last year’s Sydney Biennale…

Sydney Biennale

Cai Guo-Qiang, Inopportune: Stage One, Sydney Biennale (2010)

…As well as any number of pieces created for San Francisco’s recent Smart Art Competition.

So the question I’ve been pondering is this:

Using our original upcycling definition, does this use of end-of-life materials create ‘valuable, useful or simply aesthetically pleasing items’? Is it upcycling?

Well I’m not sure any of the artworks above are particularly useful. And the notion of ‘aesthetically pleasing’ is just too subjective to argue (beauty is in the eye of the beholder after all).

But what about valuable: is this kind of art valuable? I know this is a big question, possibly beyond a post to explore, but for me it goes straight to the heart of sustainability – what do we really value in this world?

I’m not talking about monetary value (although Vik Muniz’s ‘Pictures of Garbage’ art, captured in the Wasteland documentary,  sold for around USD $250,000). But rather, intrinsic value.

I find this kind of art valuable, not only for the clever use of materials, but because artists responding to a changing planet helps me make sense of what’s going on in the world.

The scientists speak to my head, while the artists speak to my heart.

And, like the swollen Brisbane River, they all seem to be saying we are breaching our natural limits.

Stay safe and dry, wherever you are.

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