This startup has recycled over 4 tonnes of cigarette butts into useful products
Started in 2016 by two young friends Naman Gupta and Vishal Kanet, the Noida-based social enterprise has quickly scaled up to operate in 20 states.
Noida-based Code Enterprises LLP is India's first cigarette waste management and recycling firm. Started in 2016 by two young friends, the social enterprise has quickly scaled its operations to 20 states across India, and focuses both on recycling cigarette waste and creating attractive byproducts out of it.
Often thrown away by the flick of a finger, cigarette butts are the most littered piece of waste in the world. Estimates suggest that 0.85 billion kilos of toxic cigarette waste is generated each year; with high environmental, economic, and health costs.
This was the realisation Naman Gupta (23) and Vishal Kanet (26) had while hanging out at a common friend’s place. Having been friends for a long time, Naman and Vishal were shocked by the amount of cigarette waste generated by a group of friends on a casual evening. “If one room in a PG could generate so much of trash, we wondered about the scale of hazardous waste generated by smokers worldwide,” Naman recalls.
A resident of Noida, Naman was pursuing his B.Com from Delhi University. Vishal was working as a professional photographer for the Carnival Cruise lines in USA. While pursuing their career goals, the two decided to find a solution to the problem. With some research and experiments over the next few months, they came up with the most feasible chemical process to clean and recycle Cellulose Acetate, the polymer used in cigarette butts.
“That was in September, 2015. In July next year, we launched Code Enterprise LLP, India’s first cigarette waste management firm. Through this time, I was studying while managing the firm's legal framework and figuring out the operations,” says Naman, who completed his graduation the same year. “We wanted to bring about a change in the Indian recycling sector and solve the irregular management of cigarette waste," he adds.
Making sense of cigarette waste
“We were familiar with the Delhi-NCR region, and hence started operations in Delhi, Noida, and Gurugram first. We distributed pamphlets among people and visited cigarette vendors explaining what we were trying to do. We provided them with cigarette waste collection bin called VBins, against which they had to pay us Rs 99 for three months of service. We assured them Rs 250 for per kilo of cigarette waste.”
Easier said than done, the duo soon faced unforeseen challenges. “Many of our bins were stolen, while several others were never used. We, however, continued working with the cigarette vendors who trusted us. We’d visit these vendors every fortnight, weigh their bins and pay them accordingly. They not only got paid for waste, but also got free cleaning services from us,” Naman says with a laugh.
Naman and Vishal used the chemical process they had devised for recycling these discarded cigarette butts. This chemical composition is confidential to maintain the USP of the firm. The by-products include organic compost powder made from leftover tobacco and paper covering which can be used for plantations and nurseries. The recycled polymer material is used to make cushions, garlands, small stuffed toys, accessories, key chains, among other things.
The duo used social media extensively to promote their startup. Over time, as their credibility grew, local and national media started covering the initiative. “Over 20 newspapers and media houses covered us, due to which we started getting offers from people outside Delhi who wanted to partner with us,” Naman tells us.
“We welcomed all those who wanted to partner with us. For the products we wanted to make and sell, discarded cigarette butts was a raw material.”
Pan India operations
Currently, Code Enterprise has 60 associates managing 100 districts across 20 states. Working on a contractual basis, these associates manage and supply the cigarette waste from their assigned districts. “We receive almost 300 to 400 kgs of cigarette butts every month, most of which is sent through Indian Railway’s parcel service from remote corners of India,” Naman says. Over the past one-and-ahalf years of operations, Code Enterprise has recycled over four tons of cigarette waste.
At the ground level, over 10,000 VBins have been installed for collecting the cigarette waste, generating income for over 5,000 individuals; including cigarette vendors, individual smokers, office establishments, and rag pickers. While Naman and Vishal take care of business operations, the recycling unit, located in Noida, is run by a team of two employees. It produces 15-20 kg of organic compost powder and an equal amount of recycled polymer material used for making useful artifacts.
“Since our by-products come under the general product category but have lesser manufacturing costs, we have an obvious competitive edge over existing businesses,” Naman tells us.
Currently bootstrapped by the families of Naman and Vishal, the duo plans to scale up the production and sales of the by-products to attain profitability by 2020.
“Cellulose Acetate, the recycled polymer from cigarette butts is not the same as cotton, and has many potential applications due to its high filtering properties and resistance to heat. We are conducting research on its potential use in manufacturing air-purification systems applicable for kitchen chimneys, and might be able to come up with newer and more useful by-products in the years to come,” Naman concludes.