Tag Archives: plastic waste

Change theory: working with emergence

5 Mar
Herakleitos philosopher quote

Image courtesy of David Schiller's Zen Page-A-Day 2010 Calendar

I love this quote. It’s an ancient Greek version of ‘what goes up, must come down’.

Herakleitos, the weeping philosopher, argued our only permanent reality is that of change. (How’s that for irony?)

He viewed the world order as ‘ever-living fire, kindling in measures and being extinguished in measures’.

Over 2000 years later, I’m thinking he was onto something. Yep, just looked around me – change seems to be going on quite a bit. Tick.

But I keep wondering how? How does change, especially big change, happen?

In mid-2010 I was introduced to the Berkana Institute and emergence thinking by two insightful facilitators – Chris Corrigan and Geoff Brown.

The concept of emergence provides an elegant framework for contemplating change. As Wheatley and Frieze put it in their 2006 article, Lifecycle of Emergence:

In nature, change never happens as a result of top-down, pre-conceived strategic plans, or from the mandate of any single individual or boss. Change begins as local actions spring up simultaneously in many different areas. If these changes remain disconnected, nothing happens beyond each locale. However, when they become connected, local actions can emerge as a powerful system with influence at a more global or comprehensive level. (Global here means a larger scale, not necessarily the entire planet.)

These powerful emergent phenomena appear suddenly and surprisingly. Think about how the Berlin Wall suddenly came down, how the Soviet Union ended, how corporate power quickly came to dominate globally. In each case, there were many local actions and decisions, most of which were invisible and unknown to each other, and none of which was powerful enough by itself to create change. But when these local changes coalesced, new power emerged…

To me, the guts of the theory is that we can learn how to work with emergence by understanding living systems – how they ‘begin as networks, shift to intentional communities of practice, and evolve into powerful new systems capable of global influence.’

Based on this understanding, Wheatley and Frieze argue we can encourage positive influential systems to emerge through a four stage approach: naming, connecting, nourishing and illuminating.

lifecycle of emergence diagram

Lifecycle of Emergence diagram courtesy http://www.berkana.org

I thoroughly recommend reading the full article to understand these approaches better. It’s quite short and, if you’re anything like me, it will chime inside your head for some time to come.

But how does this thinking relate to our project? Well, it helped clarify how we thought change might come about because of what we were proposing to do.

Basically, by creating an upcycling partnership between Conserve India and like-minded supporters within the Delhi 2010 Commonwealth Games organising system we hoped to:

  • connect these pioneers and positively change how major sporting events are delivered by proving new, valuable products can be made with event waste materials
  • nourish Conserve India with new contacts and knowledge about how to work with major events. We wanted to discover useful product materials; to make and sell new products and generate new income streams, leading to more benefits for Conserve’s staff  and the communities this social enterprise supports
  • illuminate the pioneering work of Conserve India, and other upcyclers, by capturing some of the vast media platform dominated by these major events. We wanted to tell the project story in as many ways possible, and through as many channels as we could, to see if we could find new supporters who would buy the products we created.

We wanted to cast a few small droplets into the river of change we can feel is fast emerging…

Einstein and zen quote

Image courtesy of David Schiller's Zen Page-A-Day 2010 Calendar

To see our original full project plan, otherwise known as ‘Our Best Guess At The Time’, click on our program logic diagram below.

CD2010 Program Logic May 2010

CD2010 Program Logic May 2010

So how did we go?

Tune in tomorrow, dear readers, and I’ll show you…

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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

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

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