From making ink from carbon soot to carpets from plastic to playgrounds using old truck tyres, new India is using technology to turn waste into useful products. SHALINI SAKSENA and MUSBA HASHMI catch up with the entrepreneurs who have made it their mission to do their bit for the environment and help others change their lifestyle
Inking carbon footprints
One of the hazards of living in a city like Delhi or for that matter Bengaluru is the number of cars on the road. With it come traffic jams. But the worst is the pollution that these vehicles emit leading to a number of health problems. But what if someone had a solution to trap this emission and convert it in a product that one could use? Believe it or not a Bengaluru-based company — Graviky Labs — is doing just this — collecting carbon soot and making a product that has plenty of usage — black ink.
While the idea is ingenious, it took Anirudh Sharma, a graduate with MIT Media Labs in Cambridge, Massachusetts and his team three years before they could come up with the final product. Founded by Sharma in 2013, Graviky Labs has till now neutralised two tonnes of PM2.5 particulate matter and made 20,500 litres of ink.
Nikhil Kaushik, co-founder of Graviky Labs, a Charted Accountant by profession tells you that he looks after the operations and the manufacturing side for the company. How does a CA get involved in manufacturing ink out of air? “Things just happened. This was something that Anirudh and I wanted to work on. We had many ideas and air pollution was one of them. Over the last three years, we gave up on the other ideas and have been working and focusing on creating ink out of pollution. It was not as if fundamentally we were there and it started, it has been a slow process,” Kaushik says.
He tells you that Anirudh who had done his Masters from MIT Media Lab was aware that one could do something like this, the concept of it. It took Kaushik and Anirudh a long time to make ink — from a mere concept to the final product.
He tells you that the last time someone did something on these lines was 400 years ago, not that what they are doing was an inspiration from that. “When we went public with our collaboration with Heineken, somebody from Turkey brought it to our notice that there used to be a mosque in Istanbul where its architecture was made in such a way that the soot made from the candle was captured and used. Even within the Indian eco-system, our women have been capturing soot to make kajal. A lot of repurposing has been done since then,” Kaushik says.
In order to capture soot, there have been many technologies that are in place. Over the years, standards have been put in place to reduce vehicular emissions or even factory particulate matter. “This was already happening. Our focus was that these technologies were in place, yet there was still so much pollution. Second, can we do something about it that was better? All this takes time to scale up. When you burn fossil fuel, there is a capturing mechanism like a filter. But these need to be cleaned leading to tonnes of pollution waste. This is then thrown in landfills or disposed off in the water. The focus was to collaborate with these companies where they didn’t thrown this away and create a commercially viable product and bring it back into circulation and help the society,” Kaushik explains.
“Normal process of making ink is that one burns fossil fuel, collect the carbon black and then makes ink. But the way we make ink, we can reduce the dependence on burning fossil fuel. This process has not been easy. We are improving on our technology so that more and more people can use it,” Kaushik says who says that for any new product to be acceptable takes time.
The resistance to accept the new product is due to several reasons. “We don’t sell as much in India. But this is normal. It is the developed economies which take the lead when to comes to using innovative products. But this doesn’t mean that there are no takers in the India. Back in 2017, Shah Rukh Khan’s programme TEDtalk Nai Sooch on Star Plus, had put up billboards made from this ink in Delhi, Mumbai and Gurugram. Also, there are price pressures. A new product is expensive as opposed to the already available ink in the market,” Kaushik says.
Another problem is that ink is not a homogeneous product. It is not as if once the product has been made, one and all can use. One is told that the ink used in a gel pen to the ink used in an ink pen to the ink used in print to the ink in printers, they are all different. Then there is laser printer and ink jet printers. “The ink used in gloss and matt paper for magazines are different as well. The ink for each will need to be custom made. It will then need to be tested. While I may say that we have the solution at the macro level but at the micro level, it is not as if a newspaper can buy the ink and use it tomorrow. There are 10 different types of ink and each has a gestation period,” Kaushik says and tells you that at present the pens that are available in over 40 countries are marker pens that artists use. These pens have been tested in different environments.
For now, the company is in talks with a few newspapers around the world to use this ink and go for cold testing. But, he tells you, this is a long process. Does it mean that a few years down the line we can use these pens for say signing your name on a cheque? Well, definitely — sooner than later.
He tells you that the best work for the Government is to concentrate on policy-making. “Of course, there are certain things that only the Government can do. The job of the private entrepreneurs is to help people change their habits. If using a taxi pool can make it easy to reduce carbon footprint that is good. The only thing that the Government needs to do is not make taxi pool illegal. The same holds true for us,” Kaushik says.
From scrap to art
From fancy rugs to carpets to poufs and to pillows, everyone wants the best of the decor for their homes. Decorating our homes with these and neglecting the environment is our guilty pleasure. But, what if we tell you that you can show-off all these items without feeling ashamed of destroying the nature with those non-biodegradable decorative villains. Yes, you read that right. An international home fashion brand — The Rug Republic is playing an eco-warrior by converting recycled plastic into trendy carpets, rugs and poufs.
This is not all. Millions of plastic bottles reach the waste traders every year. This in itself is a large number, contributing towards a sustainable future.
The brainchild of Aditya Gupta, a 50-year-old Delhi-based businessman, the brand was launched in 2013. However, it is not Aditya who was the mastermind of this business. The original idea of making carpets was of his parents, JK Gupta and Meenakshi Gupta, who started a small carpet making operation in Meerut back in 1983. Little did they know that the unit which they had set up in their garage with six weavers, will one day turn into an industry leader, directly or indirectly supporting around 5,000 families, and supplying rugs to more than 80 countries.
“The reason why I chose the name — The Rug Republic is because I wanted something peppy, universal and young. And this name fits in well. It was meant to convey that we have home fashion for everyone,” Gupta tells you.
The idea behind launching the brand was to create a brand of Indian handmade contemporary rugs. And the reason why Gupta decided to take the eco-friendly route was because he wanted to stick to the company’s philosophy of “Rethink, Rediscover, Renew”. “Today’s consumer prefers products with a story and soul. This dictate their buying decisions and choices. Style, quality and service are not the only differentiators. We are a conscious company — the first to be ISO140001 certified, which means you can prove to your stakeholders, customers and staff that you are aware of your environmental obligations and are looking to reduce your environmental impact. The recycled products fit into our ethos as well as are aligned with the market forces. I thrive for creativity and this was just the right option,” he says.
The whole process of turning waste plastic into rugs and carpets consists of a few steps and is quite simple. First, the plastic bottles are collected and sent to the waste traders. Second, the metal caps, rings, PVC labels are removed from these bottles as they cause problem downstream. Third, the bailing machines, then compress and crush them into bales. Fourth, a truckload of bales then reaches the recycling facility where the bottles are shredded, washed dried, resulting in ‘washed flakes’. Fifth, spinning units use these washed flakes to make yarn — which is then used in making rugs.
The cost of these rugs and carpets varies between Rs 400-Rs 1,000 per sq ft depending upon the design and style.
Three main types of constructions that are used is handwoven,hand-tufted and hand-knotted. Not only recycled plastic is put to use here but also other natural products like wool, cotton, leather, recycled denims and fabrics.
There is much more on Aditya’s cards. He wants to expand the brand in making more products like cushion covers and benches. “We also want to add distribution partners in more markets,” he says.
Gupta has a piece of advice for the aspirers who are willing to setup a business of their own. “One should be focused on what he wants to achieve. One step at a time is the key. No leaps will help you out. Also, passion must be backed by preparation and patience,” he tells you.
— Inputs Musba Hashmi
Tyres are the new playground
When one thinks of a playground, the first thing that pops up is rides, slides and swings made from iron and plastic. But what if someone were to tell you that one can use old tyres to create a playground where the kids can have all the fun with different kind of activities? The answer would be — is that even possible? But a young bunch of architects after passing out from IIT-Kharagpur have made this a reality.
Such is the popularity of these playgrounds, where the old truck tyres are used by not for profit Bengaluru-based organisation — Anthill Creations, it has made its presence felt in over 17 States today. The idea to create such an innovative playground began when the team was still studying.
“I was in my final year of college, in 2015, I went to this school where the children were playing with broken cement pipes. They were playing badminton with broken slippers. That is when we realised that these children didn’t even have a park where they could play. We decided to do something about it. A bunch of us built our first playground. Back then, we didn’t realise how big the problem was. Over the next couple of years, we got many requests from across the country to built a playground using tyres,” Pooja Rai, co-founder of Anthill Creations recalls.
Rai and her friends quit their jobs and decided to take up building such playgrounds full-time. The idea to use tyres took shape because the team was young, they didn’t have money to build the playground. With trial and error and over a period of time, they realised that tyres are very durable. “Children play aggressively. The reason why playgrounds don’t last for long is because iron rusts and plastic breaks. But tyres are durable. We are trying to build them in a manner where they can last for years. We are using material that can be recycled — tyres and drums,” Rai says.
However, the team doesn’t use car tyres since they are not as strong. They turn to companies like Michelin Tyres and Apollo Tyres for truck tyres. “We work with these companies as part of their CSR initiative. We also turn to scrap dealers who deal in bulk,” Rai tells you and says that to build an average a playground, they need 80 tyres.
Since it is a playground, the rides need to be colourful. The tyres need to be treated — using primer — as well since they are out in the open and need to withstand the elements of weather. They also use non-toxic paint before the kids are allowed inside the playground.
“Rubber is durable. The playgrounds that we have set-up till now, we haven’t seen any sign of wear or tear. While we have built playgrounds across the country, our office is in Bengaluru. We are now concentrating our efforts in Odisha and Maharashtra,” Rai says.
She tells you that most of the projects that they work on are for Government schools. “In such cases the principal gives us the permission. When we work in public spaces, it is the BBMP which helps us identify dark spots and dead spaces where we can work and transform them. These playgrounds are also part of employee engagement for the companies that we work with. The funding comes from them. Since these projects are DIYs, the employees are welcome to come and build the playground,” Rai tells you and says that it takes five-six days to transform a space.
Initially, the kids were not too happy to see old tyres being unloaded. “Statements like: ‘Why are they dumping trash in our school’? are common place. But within a couple of days, the children can’t just wait to start playing. Such is their enthusiasm to play on what we have created, they don’t even let the paint dry,” Rai says.
Then there is the matter of making rides using tyres. They can’t be your usual merry-go-rounds. Rai and her architect friends designed many of the early rides they installed. Now, they have a team of designers who do the needful. The company has a small team here in the Capital as well. In fact, Rai has a project starting in the city soon.
“What we are doing, reusing the waste, is very small. The fact that children are involved, it means that we are trying to change the mindset and encouraging them to recycle and reuse waste in a productive way. We keep creating waste and you have another agency that is clearing it. This is not a sustainable solution. We hope that more people can come up with innovative ideas of using waste. Individuals too can do their bit, not using plastic, is one of them,” Rai says.