Because there is no planet B: How India’s startups are fighting the waste management crisis

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India’s waste management crisis is the elephant in the room. While there has been a lot of focus on waste segregation and cleanliness, the core problems of India’s waste management continue to remain sidelined. Urban local bodies across the country dispose off huge amounts of unprocessed waste in landfills. On ground studies have shown that on an average, about 15-20 acres of land is dedicated as waste disposal sites by 7,000+ urban local bodies in India. But, landfills are an unsustainable form of waste management, and can never be the solution to the increasing needs of waste disposal.

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“India produces over 900 million tonnes of food waste per annum. It is mostly managed through landfilling or composting. Landfilling is a highly polluting, hazardous, and a space-intensive process. Moreover, 25% of all recyclables get contaminated due to food waste,” shares Ankit Alok Bagaria, Co-Founder, Loopworm.

Alarmed by the growing environmental degradation and the attendant health problems, a small yet dedicated number of tech startups are emerging as solution providers to India’s waste crisis.

Ankit’s startup, Loopworm is an insect biotechnology company that is driving a new narrative in waste management. “We have a tech-enabled vertical insect farm that grows black soldier fly larvae. These larvae grow up to 3,000 times their size in 15 days by consuming food waste or scraps. The fly of this species has no mouth or stinging parts, hence is regarded as a non-pest and non-invasive species. The larvae devouring almost everything with nutritional value makes for an excellent scalable solution both in decentralised and centralised operation models. The insects and their by-products are then used to create protein-rich feed for fish and poultry animals, oil that’s rich in lauric acid, insect frays, and Chitosan; thereby creating a circular loop,” explains the former IITian. What makes the Loopworm solution interesting is that it not only addresses the issue of waste management, but also produces a sustainable and protein-rich feed for fishes and poultry animals, firming up closed-loop recycling.

Another startup, ZeroPlast Labs, is working towards creating a waste-free planet. The startup is committed to solve two global environmental challenges: the burning of biomass waste and the growing burden of plastic waste. To achieve the two goals, ZeroPlast upcycles biomass waste into bioplastics and bio-composites, which can be used as a sustainable alternative to oil-based plastics.

“India produces 27,000 tonnes of plastic waste daily, out of which only 9% is recycled while the rest is either landfilled or burned. In addition to this, 350 million tonnes of surplus biomass waste is burned across the nation every year,” shares Aditya Kabra, Co-Founder, ZeroPlast.

The startup claims that its bioplastics are 100% compostable, are food grade and offer thermal stability. These characteristics make them ideal for replacing single-use plastics in flexible packaging applications such as cutlery and carry bags. It can also be used as a replacement for rigid plastic products like furniture, toys, and much more.

What makes the work of Loopworm and ZeroPlast relevant is that more than half of the waste generated is organic and recyclable. With waste volumes increasing by leaps and bounds due to rapid urbanisation, these startups will have a bigger role to play in saving the planet.

Social impact enterprise Phool. Co, arguably, offers “the world's first lean solution to India’s monumental 'temple-waste' problem”. It transforms tons of discarded flowers into charcoal-free incense sticks. The startup has leveraged its expertise in deep tech research to develop a new sustainable alternative to animal leather. Called ‘Fleather,’ the material is made from temple flower waste and farm stubble using the principles of biomimicry - the process of mimicking biological entities to produce new materials.

“What makes Fleather a breakthrough material is that it functions and feels like leather, but is not sourced from animals and is plastic-free. Moreover, it can be customised for aesthetic expression, flexibility, density and strength thereby enabling its use for a variety of use cases and products,” says Ankit Agarwal. Fleather is biodegradable and can be composted at the end of its lifecycle, which means it does not add to the creation of waste in any form.

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Disposal of plastic and non-biodegradable waste continues to pose the biggest challenges in India in the waste sector. These success stories aside, there is a need for continuous innovation and circular thinking to galvanise waste management in India.

“The use of packaged products has led to an exponential increase in the production of multi-layered plastic, most of which ends up in landfills where it’s either burned or left to rot. This includes biscuit wrappers, chips packets, shampoo pouches and hundreds of other products of everyday use. . Both methods of disposal produce poisonous leachate and pollute the air, water and soil,” shares Rajesh Babu, Co-Founder, Swachha Eco Solutions, a startup that offers waste management consulting services and recycling waste streams.

The startup has launched an innovative product, Repolymix, whcih is made out of formulated grades of multi-layered plastic and low value film. Repolymix is added to asphalt for the construction of roads.

“The grade of formulation can also be altered depending on the type of road being constructed. Moreover, Repolymix is affordable and we are able to supply to private and government bodies across India through our channel partners,” explains Rajesh. He adds that the startup ensures that the plastic is ethically sourced from waste pickers and self-help groups. The startup, in the past, had developed different products such as recycled plastic granules, drip irrigation pipes, borewell pipes and interlocking pavement tiles, all using plastic waste.

Fast fashion: A growing challenge in waste management

Over the last few years, the fast fashion industry has emerged as a key producer of biodegradable and non-biodegradable waste. Growing environmental awareness has led to the realisation to to see beyond the glitz and glamour and work towards driving sustainable and innovative solutions.

“India is the world’s second largest exporter of textile and apparels. The garment export manufacturing units produce an enormous amount of waste. According to industry reports, of the total fabric produced every year, 25% ends up as pre-consumer textile waste. The figure makes the textile industry the third largest contributor of solid waste in India. India produced 70 billion square meter of fabric in 2020. If 25% of it ends up in landfills, imagine the damage it can cause to the environment,” shares Ruby Khan, Founder of Muddle Art.

The pre-consumer textile waste management startup, founded in 2019, is working towards providing the textile industry with a one-stop solution for solid waste management. “We are looking at offering a systematic approach to dispose and manage pre-consumer textile waste in India through our structured interventions and an in-house framework for sorting processes that make textile waste recyclable and upcyclable. This not only prevents a major chunk of the textile waste from ending up in the landfills but also creates a value chain for pre-consumer textile waste,” shares Ruby. Muddleart’s approach brings informal waste pickers at the core of the operations and prevents waste from ending up in landfills. So far, MuddleArt has processed more than 1,800+ metric tonnes of waste.

Why scale and market-readiness of innovations are critical to make waste management sustainable

While the impact that these innovations are driving today cannot be ignored, there is a need for these innovations to scale up and become ‘market-ready’ to truly make a difference in waste management.

“While we have the conviction, we are still struggling to get acknowledgement from the ecosystem,” shares Ruby. The other key challenges for startups range from encountering roadblocks in commercialising the technology (faced by Zeroplast) to finding partner organisations to serve as launchpads for waste management solutions (as is the case with Phool.Co). “We need access to platforms where we can demonstrate our solutions, connect with mentors and advisors which can help us in development and refinement of business model planning, and a platform to help magnify the impact through pilots,” shares Dr. Kadhiravan.

Today, being part of the ‘Tectonic – Innovations in Waste Management’, a joint initiative of Social Alpha and the H&M Foundation is helping the five startups - Phool.co, Zeroplast Labs, Loopworm, Swachha Ecosolutions and MuddleArt - take a step forward in that direction.

This programme, which was launched in December 2020, is part of the Saamuhika Shakti initiative by H&M Foundation in India. The programme envisions an ecosystem stack for innovators and entrepreneurs who are developing solutions to accelerate waste management, processing and improve the income levels of informal waste pickers in Bengaluru.

A key highlight of the programme is that the selected five startups will join Social Alpha’s Waste Innovations Accelerator – a one-year immersive venture development programme where they will be provided with access to resources to become growth-ready.

Manoj Kumar, Founder and CEO, Social Alpha, “The startup innovations have demonstrated the potential to create impact and scale across geographies. Our Waste Innovations Accelerator has been designed to help these start-ups overcome barriers of entering into new markets by convening cross-sectoral collaboration with Urban Local Bodies, private institutions and civil society.”

Maria Bystedt, Strategy Head of H&M Foundation, says, “Start-ups must be given the opportunity to scale up their businesses in order to create impactful change. Simply put; scale is necessary to make a difference in the waste management ecosystem and to eventually also improve the lives for informal waste pickers”.

The startups will be implementing a pilot in Bengaluru, as a part of the Saamuhika Shakti initiative supported by the H&M Foundation. They will be working with the informal waste pickers to replicate their solutions around the city. Over the course of the year-long programme, the startups will get access to support in marketing and digitisation of their operations and technology & business incubation support. “The programme with its focus on technology, informal sector workforce empowerment and waste management is just the right platform for us to widen the scope of our work,” shares Ankit.

Under the programme, ZeroPlast will implement a pilot to process 5 tonnes of plastic per day in the city of Bengaluru.

“The plan is to develop a model in the city of Bengaluru, which can be scaled across India by developing localised supply chain and processing centers.”

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