With rapidly growing development processes in India and across the world, one of the biggest challenges that threaten our environment is the burgeoning waste management crisis.

While one might be concerned with the enormous amounts of waste generated every day (62 million tonnes by the Indian urban population), the problem lies with how a considerable percentage of it is left untreated.

Battling the issue is Kanika Ahuja, who, along with her unique social entrepreneurship program, Conserve India, is “upcycling” waste into value-adding and revenue generating fashion products.

Speaking to Guardian 20, Ahuja talks about the possibility of tackling poverty through fashion and teaming up with ragpickers for the programme, and also discusses the future goals for Conserve India.

Q. When and how did Conserve India happen?

A. Conserve India started out as an NGO working in sustainability in 1998 and later converted to a social entrepreneurship model in 2004. Since then Conserve has been working in a variety of fields starting out from energy efficiency to waste management by composting, recycling and upcycling. We have also recently launched an initiative in Food Security called “Clever Bud” to promote sustainable soil-less farming.

 The need for promotion and development of sustainable innovation in India lent the impetus to found this organisation.

Q. How important is waste management for a developing country like India?

A. India alone produces million tonnes of garbage daily. Out of which only 28% is treated. This leads to tonnes of garbage entering landfill sites on a daily basis. Apart from landfills being an eyesore, metropolitan cities in India are running out of landfill space. Landfills are breeding grounds for diseases and are severely affecting the unorganised sector of the ragpicker community who mostly live right beside these landfill sites. Open decomposition of waste often leads to spontaneous combustion adding to the air pollution in India’s cities. Toxic waste from these sites is penetrating into the soil and water that feeds the cities.

 With correct management of waste several benefits like composting solid waste, recycling of scrap metal, glass etc. and upcycling among others can be extracted.

Q. Could you please tell us more in detail about the organisation’s focus areas?

A.Conserve India is an organisation committed to sustainable innovations. Most of them have been in the field of waste management—converting waste to fashion. We also provide consulting to corporates to decrease their carbon footprint by recycling or efficient waste management. Conserve India is coming a full circle by entering back into the energy field by incorporating solar energy with hydroponics to run sustainable farms.

Q. What are the current initiatives employed by Conserve India?

A. Upcycling: Conserve has developed a patented technique to upcycle plastic waste from landfills into an attractive new material called “Handmade Recycled Plastic (HRP)”. HRP is used to create high-fashion products like handbags, belts, stationery etc. We also use other materials available in the waste stream like seatbelts, tents, HDPE sacks, and lifejackets to create upcycled products.

 Food Security: The “Clever Bud” systems were launched to ensure safe and productive farming of vegetables using advanced hydroponic techniques that allows food to grow at a rate which is 5-7 times faster than traditional farming. This not only allows a greater quantity of food to be grown per unit area per unit time but also the food thus produced is of higher nutritional value than the most produce sold in the market. It is a modern form of organic farming which encompasses all its benefits while also eliminating diseases caused via soil and the ill-effects of pesticides and herbicides.

 Ongoing research in creating blends of natural fibres with recycled fibres: Simultaneously promoting the use of natural fibres and recycling old textiles while creating a zero carbon footprint.

Q. What according to you is the major challenge facing various waste management programmes run by the government and private bodies?

A. Collection of waste and correct segregation is the biggest challenge faced by every waste management programme in the country. Waste management in India does not have an efficient supply chain. The ragpicker community works as a 100% unorganised sector and is an extremely exploited strata of the society. Revenue generating treatment centres for waste are not put to use efficiently. Only 28% of collected waste is treated. But, if waste is treated efficiently then it can be a trillion dollar industry contributing to India’s economy.

Q. Conserve India was started by your parents in 1998. Being a part of the programme was a conscious decision for you? Were you always sure that you would want to take it up?

A. My parents always kept my sister and I very involved with the projects at Conserve. We have always felt like a part of the organisation. But we both ventured out to find our own ways—my sister, as an actuary settled in London and I, armed with an MBA joined a corporate job. But I soon realized that my true calling was in helping the environment and the attachment I have had for Conserve as an organisation made joining this organisation an easy choice.

Q. As empowering as “battling poverty with fashion” is, why was upcycling fashion products zeroed in on as a means to tackle the waste management problem and unemployment?

A. After our work in the slums, we soon realized that the only thing that ragpickers had available to them was waste, so we trained them in using waste as a resource. Making high-value products from low-value waste made it possible for them to make this into a sustainable business. Their daily income doubled instantly as collectors of waste. They were further trained into cleaning, sorting and fabricating products. This has led this community to have a better standard of living while contributing in managing the waste problem sustainably.

Fashion products have been designed to create higher value for the upcycled product which would enable enough revenue for the self-help group to run profitably.

Q. Since Conserve India is working closely with the unorganised sector and ragpickers, where there any initial challenges that came in the way of convincing the community to be a part of the initiative?

A.Yes, Conserve wanted to train more women in this art as women can contribute to this project from their localities and that would invariably help the repressed women of the community. The men and influencers of the community had to be convinced of the project to allow women to work for Conserve. The landlord for the community also needed to be convinced for the project to run smoothly. Communal tensions continue to be an issue.

Q. What sort of fashion products does Conserve India upcycle? How are these products made available to the consumers/buyers?

A. Our upcycled product range consists of backpacks, handbags, totes, wallets, diaries, footwear and home décor items. We are currently a 100% export company but are launching our retail brand in India, in August under the brand name “Lifaffa”.

Q. What would be the organisation’s future plans?

A. 1) We want to disseminate the technology developed by us to recycle plastic in other parts of India and in other developing countries where waste and unemployment coexist.

2) We want to sensitise consumers to buy products with a conscience, to ensure that mainstream brands follow sustainable and fair practices.

3) Continue our innovation in sustainability and popularise technologies that would be useful in regenerating the environment.