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“I am only one, but I am one. I cannot do everything, but I can do something. And I will not let what I cannot do interfere with what I can do.”

― Edward Everett Hale

Though everyone knows that plastics are not good for the environment, yet they are ubiquitous. Until the time you and I learn to say ‘No’ to plastics, the situation may not change much. The tons of plastic waste generated daily in our cities is a major environmental hazard. Lots of people keep complaining about the menace, but thankfully some are trying to address the problem in their own small ways.

A Delhi based couple Anita and Shalabh Ahuja are doing a fabulous job, teaming up with rag pickers who supply plastic waste to them, which are made into stylish bags, footwear and other accessories and sold at boutiques in Europe. They have put into practice the three “R’s” for environment conservation viz, Reuse-Reduce-Recycle. The profitable 100 percent export venture could have become a good commercial enterprise. But the couple stuck to their guns to let it remain a non-profit one, so that the earnings from the business could be used to uplift those living at the bottom of the pyramid.

Anita shalabh Ahuja

The feedback from the rag pickers is encouraging. “I was a rag picker and having a hand to mouth existence, but with the training I got from ‘Conserve India’ today I earn ₹ 16000 per month,” says Shamim, a resident of Laxminagar slum in Delhi who has been with Conserve India for past twelve years. He had been picking waste near Anita’s house, but now he is the cutting master at their factory located at Bahadurgarh in West Delhi.

But Conserve India had a humble beginning. Anita, who is the Creative Director of Conserve India, used to be unhappy about the rubbish heap in the capital and the failure of the Municipal Corporation to effectively clear the garbage. She was also disturbed by the tendency of the people in the neighborhood to always accuse the rag pickers whenever a theft occurred in the vicinity. She felt the rag pickers were actually doing a yeoman service to the environment by collecting the waste and carrying them to recycling plants.

Initially, Ahuja’s got the waste of several colonies collected in a park and then got it segregated. Wet kitchen waste would be converted into compost while dry refuse like polythene bags would be put aside. That project didn’t quite work but led her to the idea of doing something about plastic bags. Over the next two years Ahuja experimented with recycling the bags. She tried weaving them together to create a tarpaulin-like covering for the shacks of slum dwellers. Another time she tried pasting pieces of the polyethylene onto canvas and cardboard. She saw that a thicker fabric could be used to make bric-a-brac like pen holders and file folders, and realized she’d finally found a successful recipe when her homemade products were popular at a fair at the U.S. embassy in New Delhi. She decided to venture into accessories.

In 1998, when the Delhi government launched the ‘Bhagidari’ campaign, asking its citizens to participate in civic initiatives, the conservationist, Anita Ahuja and her IIT-alumna husband Shalabh rose to the challenge and launched ‘Conserve.’ With a seed grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), the duo began advocating waste management through seminars and workshops. Initially they planned to wash, dry and press the plastics into thick sheets and sell them as cheap night shelters. However the finished sheets gave the look of leather and a designer friend used it to make a few handbags that became a hit with buyers. In 2002, Shalabh designed an innovative, now patented, process that “up-cycles” this dirty waste into beautiful Handmade Recycled Plastic, known as HRP. It is made from polythene bags picked from Delhi’s streets, rubber from old truck tyres inner tubes, old denims and saris. The processes used to make ‘Conserve’ bags and accessories have been specifically developed to be as energy efficient as possible and to keep out polluting dyes and chemicals.  This not only helps the environment, it also cuts costs, giving the organization more money to invest in other social projects.

The couple took to the business and it grew into 100 percent export venture. In foreign stores their products are marketed on the strength of the environmental and social causes they support. Profit from the business was ploughed back into training the rag pickers and many were absorbed into Conserve India as permanent employees. Most of the rag-pickers are poor, illiterate and belong to rural immigrant families. Many start working at the young age of five to eight years. Most of them have never attended any school. While collecting rags they are subjected to chemical poisons and infections. Due to malnutrition, they suffer from stunted growth and anemia.

Conserve India pays above the prevailing market rate to these rag pickers for the waste they supply, and cares for their wellbeing. There are about 600 rag pickers working with Conserve India. They pay about ₹ 5200 per month to rag pickers working with them. Those who bring sorted plastics are paid ₹ 18-₹ 25 per kilogram, which is more than the ₹ 12 per kg market rate. Conserve India has tied up with a local hospital, which sends doctors to visit slums where the rag pickers reside to address their health needs. They also run a primary school for kids of rag pickers, where about seventy children are now studying.

The rag picking community is unorganized; it is difficult for them to protect their rights. By giving them ‘Conserve Employee Cards’, Conserve India helps them have a voice in the society. Conserve India has also started a campaign called Recognition for Rag pickers. As part of this, the organization is trying to persuade the Delhi government to create an official register so as to recognize Delhi’s 150,000 rag pickers and give them their right to a fair wage. It has not only brought dignity to the rag pickers but also helped them to improve their economic status. These workers of Conserve also undergo medical screenings to help them diagnose health problems on time and send their young children to the Conserve School. It has trained more than 1200 people in making of handbags and footwear. With an initial funding from Asian Development Bank, Conserve India is now starting two new projects for tracking the general welfare of its workers and providing health clinics for those who have no access to healthcare.