How Chennai-based Paperman is creating an alternative trash economy worth Rs 20,000 cr


Imagine this – you exit a movie theatre and as you are about to throw your tickets away, you see a poster which says, “This bag can collect your waste and also help several girl children realise their dreams.” Would you still throw those tickets away or drop them in this bag? Eight out of 10 people embrace the bag. Mathew Jose, Founder of Chennai-based Paperman says, “Indians are socially connected, but it’s time that they start being environmentally connected.” And that’s what Paperman has set out to do.

Founded in 2010, Mathew is creating an alternative trash economy. By incentivising behaviour that encourages citizens to separate, aggregate, and recycle waste, he’s meeting the enormous supply gap in India’s recycling industry.

The Paperman

My father is in the plywood business (linked to cutting trees), whereas my passion is to save them

says 30-year old Mathew Jose. Born and brought up in Kerala, Mathew moved to Chennai to complete his graduation at Madras Christian College. An entrepreneur at heart like his father, he decided to not sit for the placements and joined a non-profit. He started working with ExNoRa (Excellent Novel Radical) – a Chennai-based non-profit founded by noted social activist M B Nirmal that focuses on preserving nature and preventing environmental degradation.

He says,

They were among the first in the country to actually take up waste management. In my year-long stint with them, I realised there were innumerable small-scale projects, mostly research-based, in the sector but none wanted to scale. Waste management needs to move from mere intellectualising to an actionable solution on-ground. This realisation made me foray in to the sector as an entrepreneur.


India’s recycling industry and its inherent issues

Research indicates that over 40 different kinds of waste (paper, glass, plastic, metals etc.) can be recycled as India has industries for these. However, the Indian Paper Manufacturers Association (IPMA) 2012 said that paper mills recycle 3.0 million tonnes annually, a mere 27 per cent of paper consumed. Compared to Germany, which recycles 73 per cent of its waste, India has a long way to go.

It is estimated that if all of the country’s recyclable waste is actually recycled, this industry could be worth Rs 20, 000 crore ($4 billion).

So, what’s stopping us? Mathew says there are two main reasons –

  1. Lack of a strong reason for people to recycle (since behaviour change is a long-term impact)
  2. Lack of an organised waste-collection market

How is Paperman fixing this issue?

During the first three years, Mathew worked with over 120 schools in Chennai trying to understand the underlying behavioural patterns and issues leading to non-recycling. He says,

It’s extremely important to instil positive behaviour during the formative years and that’s why we designed a range of collaborative activities, used gamification, and created outcome-based social projects to motivate children further.
Mathew Jose taking a session on creative uses of waste

He talks about an idea one of the schools came up with.

This school had a slogan ‘Every child, two newspapers, for five days. The result of children bringing 10 newspapers a week was Rs 18, 000 in just a month, which they donated to Nanhi Kali (a non-profit) and facilitated a girl’s education for an entire year!
A Paperman drive in a school

When Mathew scaled up this simple idea to other schools in the city, the children managed to raise money for 100 girls’ education in 2012. Mathew’s dream is that Paperman should be able to send 8, 000 girls to school. After around three years, Mathew was convinced he had created an independent and well-functioning school-ecosystem where children were motivated both socially and environmentally to continue the activities as well as innovate. He created a network of local kabadiwallahs who make monthly trips to the schools. Children now collect trash from home and bring it to school. Mathew says,

The kabadiwallahs benefit from this as it saves them the trouble of making daily or weekly trips. On the other hand, it increases their income significantly. People who have been with us for 2-3 years are making an average of Rs 25, 000 per month.”

Next, Mathew created a similar ecosystem for the citizens of Chennai. He says the problems with households were slightly different. One of the biggest barriers was aggregating waste in limited spaces and waiting for the kabadiwallah to pick it up. Paperman designed bags with compartments for different kinds of waste, which would be sufficient for a month. Paperman also provides information on the range of things they can recycle. He has created a simple three-step process for households, companies and schools –

  1. Interested entities can register on the company’s website
  2. Paperman will send a kabadiwallah within three hours to collect the trash
  3. The customer gets paid and has two options – recycling for a cost and recycling for a cause

Over the years, Mathew has seen a positive trend. He says,

Waste is now being appreciated because people see positive value in it. There is purpose behind every plastic bottle and newspaper. It’s good to see that close to 90 per cent of our customers recycle for a cause.


The impact of recycling for a cause

Mathew started with nothing. Today, Paperman has recycled 1,27,626 kg of trash according to their website. This has led to saving 2,127 trees, approximately 33 lakh litres of water and around 4, 000 sq. ft of landfill space. In terms of air pollution, 33, 000 kg of CO2 release has been avoided. Furthermore, Paperman has empanelled at least 35 city-based non-profits who are benefitting from the money they generate. Some of the non-profits are AIM For Seva (helping rural and tribal children excel through education), and Banyan Tree (providing care and rehabilitation to the mentally ill).

In FY 14-15, Paperman generated Rs 40 – 50 lakh, four times more than the previous year when they raised Rs 10 lakh. They work with 270 kabadiwallahs who are catering to over 4, 000 registered users (this includes companies, schools, offices, independent houses and apartments). Paperman charges the kabadiwallah 5 per cent of the total value of each transaction as revenues. The model has clearly shown its ability to scale in a self-sustaining manner. But as Mathew says,

There’s a lot more to be done. Paperman wants to go national and have a waste entrepreneur (not kabadiwallah) for every 2 km radius. It has to be a solution that’s unanimously accepted by everyone.


A peek in to the kind of impact Paperman drives make

Mathew’s future plans

In the next few years, Mathew wants to spread the model to Hyderabad and Bengaluru. But his larger goal is to connect the waste entrepreneurs to mainstream industries and create an economy of waste products for recycling. Looking back, Mathew says, “We are still learning so much every day and continuously innovating. But whatever impact we have managed to make is because we had the passion to solve this problem in a systemic way.”


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