This social enterprise turns plastic waste into fabric with the help of Charkha
Some of the imagery that crosses our minds as we think of “fashions” and “pollution” include the dumping of used fabrics in landfills, the detergent foams from washed clothes floating in rivers, the micro-plastics s’ accumulating in the oceans, etc. Precisely, we have always seen fashion as a facilitator of pollution. But what if pollutants could be used to create fashion?
EcoKaari, a social enterprise, recycles plastic waste into handmade fabrics using a loom and a wooden spit (Charkha). These fabrics are used to make everyday utility items such as fashion accessories, handbags, home decor items, and office stationery. Launched in Pune in 2020, this company aims to preserve the environment and also offers employment opportunities to many rural artisans.
Transformation process: from waste to treasure
The process begins with the supply of raw material, i.e. plastic waste that is not biodegradable and difficult to recycle. These come from discarded packaging materials, packets of crisps, cookies, gift wrapping, and even old audio or video tapes, which are then separated based on their colors, size and material. their thickness.
It may seem that since plastic waste always lies in garbage, it can be easy to collect it. But it’s not. For a long, even yarn that makes weaving easier, some types of discarded plastics cannot be used. These include hard plastics like tetra wrappers, small plastics like straws, and packages that are torn or cut in the corners.
Given this, EcoKaari sources plastic from just three places. First, plastic is collected from conscious citizens who donate their household plastic waste. They drop it off either at the Pune workshop or by mail there. Apart from this, plastic is also collected from small businesses that use plastic for the packaging of their food products. Finally, the plastic is purchased from an NGO that works with waste pickers, thus creating an alternative income channel.
These plastics are then cleaned with a minimum of water and natural cleaner, dried in the sun, cut into strips by hand, rolled on a traditional charkha and woven in a loom. From there, the design team takes over and the tailors sew these fabrics into products.
These products are mainly sold on the organization’s website. They also retail the products from their Pune office and sell them directly through exhibitions. In addition, they also have export partners in Australia, Dubai, France, Germany, New Zealand, Singapore, UK and USA.
In addition, the organization’s belief in “closing the loop” in resource use does not end there. To reduce the life cycle of the product, EcoKaari accepts products for repair. They also take back the products once the products are at the end of their lifecycle for reuse. For example, cotton fabrics used as the inner lining of products are reused to create durable packaging for packages.
If a product cannot be reused, it is taken back and donated to another who converts plastic waste into fuel.
So how much plastics has the organization recycled so far? Well, making a medium-sized product (like a tote bag) consumes 35-40 plastic bags. Overall, in less than a year, the organization has managed to recycle more than 2 lakhs of used plastic bags and packaging, keeping them from going to landfills and oceans, the founder said. -Director of EcoKaari, Nandan Bhat.
However, preserving the environment by recycling plastic was not the only goal behind the creation of EcoKaari. The social enterprise has two other goals: to generate livelihoods and to educate citizens about plastic pollution.
Create employment opportunities
In a densely populated country like India, the debate over whether automation should replace manual labor has been around for some time. But over the years, companies over-favored the former, leading to a gradual decline in the craft culture once prevalent in the country. However, EcoKaari decided to take the road less traveled.
At EcoKaari, the entire weaving process has been made manual to generate livelihoods for people from modest backgrounds, especially women and youth. A follower of the traditional culture of “Kaarigari” (crafts), Bhat noted that artisans are the backbone of EcoKaari. Every product that was made embodied their passion, thought process and creative skills.
“We don’t want to commercialize our process for the simple reason: to generate as much livelihood as possible. Imagine if people start using machines (at) every step of a process, then the unemployment rate will increase exponentially. It gives our team great pleasure in creating a product that also preserves the environment, ”said Bhat. The logical Indian.
Since the entire process is manual, it does not involve any chemicals, electricity or heat, making the process environmentally friendly.
Reverse business model
But how did the organization manage to balance intensive labor and keeping product prices affordable? According to Bhat, they kept their margins low to make the products affordable for people. “However, we cannot compete with a market that makes machine-made products from cheap materials. We work on a reverse business model where the more we sell, the more plastic we recycle and the more we create. sustenance, ”Bhat said in a speech. with The logical Indian.
The organization currently supports 22 artisans and plans to increase the number to 50 by the end of 2022.
One of these 22 artisans is Priyanka Patil, a 20-year-old student, who has been working in EcoKaari’s fabric weaving unit for 6-7 months. In an interview with The Logical Indian, she explained how she joined the organization due to the lockdown, but now has a new love for her job due to its impact on her life and the impact it has on her. to create in the environment. “I feel good (that) the environment is saved a bit (by our work). And the plastic that comes in, whether it’s a chocolate wrapper or a packet of cookies, we make beautiful fabrics out of it. that comes back to me – which I use in my education (sic.), ”she said.
Engage with citizens
In addition to accepting plastic donations from conscious citizens, EcoKaari also organizes sessions with educational institutions and businesses to raise awareness about plastic pollution.
One of the participants in these awareness sessions was Cyrus Dastur, founder of Shamiana – The Short Film Company. Commenting on his experience in these sessions, Dastur said: “It was absolutely fantastic. Thanks to people like him (Bhat), we will at least have someone who will step forward and do something for the environment. Because what a lot of us do is say we care about the environment, and I’m sure we do … But our love and concern for the environment starts with l ‘activism and end with activism. “
“But people like Nandan are actually walking. They are actually doing what needs to be done. So I think it was fantastic to be a part of the session. I learned a lot more about EcoKaari,” Dastur said. talk about it with The logical Indian.
The belief in ingenuity and commitment to conserving the environment is visibly reflected at every stage of the organization. An obvious question comes to mind: what could have motivated a person to stay dedicated to a goal? EcoKaari founder and director Nandan Bhat said he believed his connection to nature had its roots in his childhood.
In a conversation with The logical Indian, Bhat recalled how he spent his childhood in a picturesque village in Jammu. But his happy days were cut short when the insurgency uprooted him and his family, and they ended up in migrant camps.
“Resources were scarce and ingenuity was the only key to survival there. We’ve recycled and recycled everything from clothes, shoes to books and more, ”said the founder.
Times improved and Bhat moved with his family to Pune, eventually accepting a job with a company. His work has allowed him to travel extensively in the mountains, where he has noticed plastic waste littering the countryside. This disturbed the nature lover in him and ignited his entrepreneurial spirit, forcing him to start EcoKaari last year.
Challenges encountered in the process
But choosing the road less traveled came with its fair share of challenges. For example, manual quality control to reduce product defects increased production time, thereby increasing the price of the final product.
More importantly, the employment of artisans instead of mechanizing the process posed certain limitations. “The assumption (is) that the products are made from plastic waste, so they will cost very low or be given to customers for free, without understanding the hard work it takes to create 1 product in 2-3 days,” Bhat said. The logical Indian
Instead, labor-intensive labor has raised prices, making it harder to compete with its mass-produced counterparts. Therefore, the amount spent on investment has always been greater than the amount spent. One possible solution would have been to obtain funds, but funds for these kinds of initiatives are scarce compared to what is available for other causes like education or poverty.
Impact of COVID
The founder also shared that COVID has severely affected the business. “As a small social enterprise, we depend on the sale of products to support the livelihoods of our artisans and their families. The only good thing that has happened is that since the pandemic has facilitated an exponential increase in l ‘use of plastic packaging, the organization has received many donations from citizens,’ said Bhat.
Commenting on the organization’s plans for the future, Bhat noted that they wanted to replicate their unity in other Indian cities and around the world. But it requires funds which they currently lack. “However, if companies as part of their CSR support us, then replication can happen much sooner,” Bhat said while speaking with The logical Indian.
Soon they want to replicate as many units as possible, especially in villages, so that more plastic is recycled and more livelihoods are created. They are currently trying R&D with textile waste and other materials to see if more waste can be subjected to the recycling process.
Also read: Go Clean, Go Green: Student initiative turns plastic waste into supports for hydroponic plants