12 August 2019

Plastic Neutral, Human Positive

Written by Published in Environment
Recycling worker in Hyderabad, India
rePurpose co-founders (Peter, Svanika, Aditya)
rePurpose team in a Mumbai waste facility
Waste picker child scavenging for plastic in a Delhi landfill
Saahas Zero Waste facility staff (Bangalore, India)
rePurpose partner's state-of-the-art facility in Bangalore

Sublime meets up with Peter Wang Hjemdahl, co-founder of rePurpose, a social enterprise dedicated to creating a global plastic neutral community by supporting waste workers worldwide.

Sublime: Where did the idea for rePurpose come from?

Peter: rePurpose began when my co-founders and I found ourselves in Deonar East in Mumbai, one of Asia’s largest landfill. That visit changed everything for us. It was a crazy sight. We were stood between informal waste pickers on mountains of plastic and the endless skyline of Mumbai on the other. Every few minutes, around the clock, a garbage truck would enter and dump more waste.

I will never be able to forget the smell of trash.

Peter rePurposeWe were faced with the way our society produces, consumes and disposes of waste on a daily basis – and it was madness. We saw the opportunity for how we could make a change. Waste pickers were scavenging for materials within the landfill that they could then sell on for recycling. This struck a chord with us – right there was our solution.

S: How can items that could be recycled be reaching landfill?

PWH: There’s a few reasons. The first is that even if waste separation happens at source, say in your homes, they often all get tipped into the one truck headed for landfill as systems are not being joined up properly. And then there are items in landfill that national government and state municipalities aren’t collecting that could be recycled. Plastic waste isn’t born equal. The kabadiwalas and waste pickers in India have the ability to sort landfill waste into 30 different categories with their eyes closed!

S: You mention that plastic waste isn’t born equal. Why not?

PWH: You can categorise plastic into seven chemical, and two economical types. High value plastics, such as milk cartons, yogurt tubs, PET and HDPE, are what is generally getting recycled now.

Low value plastic – flex packaging, biscuit and fruit wrappers – is what often gets disregarded and contaminates our streets and beaches. It ends up in landfill because it is extremely difficult to recycle.

The waste pickers are smart – they know that low value plastic in bulk still has value. That’s why we decided to focus on this at rePurpose.

S: Is plastic waste a global crisis?

PWH: Yes and no. It’s a crisis in the current context. The average American consumes 104kgs of plastic every single year, most of which is landfilled, burned or flushed into the ocean. On an individual level, we tend to choose convenience and affordability over sustainability. Governments across North America and Europe send our waste to poor Asian countries for landfill to avoid keeping it on our doorstep. These countries already struggle with their own waste disposal due to poorly planned, fragile systems.

Yet it’s also an opportunity. We’ve had awareness thanks to The Guardian and David Attenborough. We’re completely misguided due to what gets media attention. Plastic straws, for example, account for less than 1% of plastic waste that’s estimated to enter marine ecosystems annually.

This has caused interest but there is a challenge. Painting an apocalyptic scene isn’t going to help anybody – this merely creates political apathy and empathy fatigue. We can discover novel ways to reduce our plastic use while also finding a better purpose for ‘offsetting’ our current unavoidable plastic use. This is the opportunity – and we can all do something about it.

At rePurpose we say, “Don’t let perfect get in the way of good.”

S: How easy is it to go plastic neutral?

PWH: You can eliminate your low value plastic waste with the click of a button and in just three easy steps. We realised early on that we cannot understand the plastic issue without having a reliable way to estimate how much waste we produce individually.

We developed a calculator that is simple to use and will take you just three minutes to measure your own annual plastic consumption. That’s the first step.

The second step is inviting you to take responsibility for that waste. We have worked out how much it would cost for us to take the equivalent amount of low value plastic out of the environment on your behalf. It currently costs just $0.50 a kilo, so for 100kgs of plastic waste, that’s $50.

You can go plastic neutral for basically the price of a coffee each month. With this action, you officially become a rebalancer.

The third and final step is the harder bit: improving your plastic consumption behaviour. When I first used our calculator, I was surprised by my results. The good news is that we’ve done all the hard work and are here to help you. We use your footprint results and analyse your consumption patterns to identify ways to reduce your plastic use.

These are local, tangible actions that are neither time consuming nor expensive, but have positive impact. We focus on reduce and reuse efforts, and link in with national providers and zero waste schemes across the globe.

S: What percentage of your company's profits goes to the projects?

PWH: As we are a social enterprise, we do take a cut of the profit and we are proud of this fact as it will allow us to scale up by deploying the profits into marketing and acquisition. We take 25% to maintain operations and monitor our impact. We have full-time monitoring and evaluation agents within each PlasticNeutral facility in order to make sure that ethical standards are upheld.

The remaining 75% is split between the cost of collecting, processing and ethically disposing of low-value plastic, and customizing impact projects that we implement with each organization to either scale up their operations and environmental impact, or to fund holistic social empowerment programs with the informal waste worker sector. 

S: What’s been your most eye-opening moment for you?

PWH: It’s not every day you converse with the humans who take care of your waste. We offload our collective environmental responsibility to the poorest sections of our society.

There’s a whole load of cultural and religious self-organization that you just wouldn’t realise exists in this informal industry. It is often the Dalit or casteless women, often known as untouchables, who are waste pickers. In Mumbai’s landfill, you’ll find that it’s Muslims from Uttar Pradesh who manage plastic waste, and Jains from Gujarat who take care of the paper trade.

There’s a lot of trust and camaraderie within the garbage mounds. The saddest part is that due to complicated layers of discrimination in India, there’s a huge intergenerational issue, in that the son of a waste picker can only be a waste picker. Thankfully, this mentality is now changing and there is an upwards trajectory of those looking for and embracing more opportunities.

S: So how does rePurpose engage with the hidden faces of waste management?

PHW: There are approximately 50 million informal waste workers They are going through our garbage without access to basic healthcare of education. They are usually hidden away from society living in informal colonies. It isn’t a dignified job when you can’t afford a proper home.

The efforts of informal waste workers are recognized neither by government or the citizens who generate the trash – it’s exploitative.

When waste workers treat our waste as gold and separate it, they are embarking on a very guerrilla form of environmental activism that we should applaud.

By working with carefully selected recycling initiatives, we support waste pickers in changing their fate. For example, through one our projects with Saahas Zero Waste, near Bangalore, we use our profits to identify waste pickers living in abject poverty. We provide them with training in waste management and give them funding to set up their own microenterprises. Once they gain a formal working licence they can tap into healthcare and educational subsidies. We can help them build real bricks and mortar homes, as well as safe, waste separation centres to work in. The workers get formal protection, the women get real homes and the children can play safely.

Going forward, these grassroots networks can form the basis of more sustainable systems that truly close the loop by establishing product-recovery models more grounded in circular economy principles, where reusable packaging is collected from consumers, cleaned, and subsequently sent back to manufacturers for reuse.

S: How did you choose your partner organizations?

PHW: Early on we recognized that we will never know as much as local organizations already engaged in waste management.

From over 40 organizations, we vetted potential partners for their track record, quality of operational infrastructure, implementational capacity and engagement with the informal sector. It was crucial they had trust and respect on the ground.

We currently have three PlasticNeutral partners, Saahas Zero Waste in Bangalore, Waste Ventures India in Hyderabad, and Aasra Welfare Association in Mumbai.

S: Isn’t offsetting as dirty a word as plastic?

PWH: Carbon offsetting receives criticism because it can be misused by industrial polluters and big corporates as a way to buy their way out of their environmental impact. rePurpose is a completely different type of offsetting.

We want to help everyone understand and take responsibility for plastic waste. We can change the landscape by building up recycling systems in cities and countries that really need them. 

S: What’s the future?

PHW: I’m really excited as we are definitely galvanising a movement. Our goal is to make our social enterprise defunct. We don’t want a plastic neutral world but a plastic free, zero waste world. As this won’t happen overnight, let’s take action in what we can control.

Plastic is so ingrained in our individual lives and, when you really think about it, there are good applications for plastic use, such as storing critical medical supplies. While we are finding alternatives, let’s be plastic neutral.

S: India’s Swacch Bharat “Clean India” campaign is well underway and PM Modi plans to abolish single plastic waste in India by 2022. What's your opinion of the campaign? Do you think Modi’s goal is realistic? 

PWH: The Swacch Bharat campaign is very ambitious and I’m glad that the national government has motivation for the issue. However, abolishing single plastic waste in India within the next three years is unlikely. The problem, like with most countries in the world, is that there is a huge divide between the national government and state level activity.

Waste management in India is at the hands of local urban bodies and privatised corporations, so political will and implementation of wider policies is handled differently across every region. Some cities, such as Indore, Chennai and Bangalore are doing quite well, but other major urban areas, Mumbai included, and many rural areas have a long way to go.

What I love to see is consumers becoming aware of the issue and joining local advocacy groups – this has really cool impetus as businesses and manufacturers listen.

rePurpose

 

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