In 2021, WasteAid launched its Zero Waste Cities Challenge to identify and nurture entrepreneurs creating new circular economy solutions. One of the competition winners in Assam, India, is entrepreneur Dilip Das who is improving livelihoods for unskilled workers in the circular plastics economy.
Guwahati is the largest metropolis in North Eastern India and is one of the country’s fastest growing cities. With just one waste disposal dumpsite and no formal recycling services, the population of 1 million people rely on the services of waste pickers to keep recyclable materials out of the environment and benefitting the local economy.
Disrupting a traditional market with recycled products
Guwahati is at the heart of the thriving regional construction sector supply chain. Housebuilders source the majority of their materials in this area, and so circular economy entrepreneurs are ideally placed to offer low-cost and high-quality recycled construction products.
Shree Guru Plastics, a Guwahati micro-enterprise and winner of WasteAid’s Zero Waste Cities Challenge, has found an ideal way to recover value from waste flexible plastics by manufacturing plastic sheeting for damp course and selling it to the local construction sector.
Damp course is an important but often overlooked material in building comfortable homes. By acting as a waterproof layer between the ground and the living quarters, it keeps homes warmer and drier – vital in a region that experiences twice as much rain as the UK. This in turn creates a healthier living environment, less prone to mould that can result in respiratory illnesses.
To make its plastic sheeting, Shree Guru Plastics hires five women to collect the thin film polyethylene (PE) bags and wrap. Once at the factory, six more women are employed to sort and clean the plastic, from where it is shredded and melted, and transformed into durable plastic lining for house building projects.
The particular challenge of low-value plastics in a circular economy
Flexible plastic is lightweight, low-cost, water-proof and sanitary, making it ideal for a wide range of packaging applications. Once it becomes a waste, however, a number of factors combine to make flexible plastic packaging a major challenge for a circular economy:
- A wide range of polymers are used in flexible plastic packaging, making it difficult for the untrained eye to distinguish one from another.
- Thin plastic film can be attached to other materials such as paper and metal, which are impossible to separate in a cost-effective manner.
- Used flexible packaging is often contaminated, for example with residues of food or detergent, meaning it has to be cleaned thoroughly before it can be recycled. Likewise, flimsy plastics are often mixed in with food waste, hampering composting operations.
- Its lightweight nature means it takes more time and effort to collect a kilogram of flexible packaging than it does to collect a kilo of plastic bottles. As a consequence, flexi packs are often avoided by waste pickers who are making a living from collecting recyclable materials.
An inclusive approach to a circular plastic economy
The business model developed by Shree Guru Plastics means that the microenterprise is not only recovering value from flexible plastic packaging, but is also using this value to support people in poverty and with limited employment prospects.
To start with, Shree Guru employs waste pickers who play a vital role in the value chain, using their specialist knowledge to select the correct plastics required for the process. By providing a new market for an often-overlooked waste material, the business is enabling people at the beginning of the value chain to diversify and to access a new source of income. Since they are selling to the recycler directly, there are no middle-men and Shree Guru is able to pay a fair wage directly to the collectors.
Waste pickers are usually living in extreme poverty, and so an uplift in income can mean the difference between one meal or two in a day, or the chance to send their children to school.
The factory also employs 11 women. India’s female labour force participation is the lowest in South Asia, with four out of five women out of work. A survey by Avtar Group found that women in India are paid 34 percent less than men for the same job with the same qualifications.
Fairly-paid employment opportunities for women like those offered by Shree Guru are highly sought-after as they bring both income and family benefits. With women’s wage work linked to an increase in education for children in the house, supporting women into work is vital for children’s prospects and social mobility.
Corporate social responsibility helps drive a circular economy
Recognising that we each have a role to play in keeping the value of resources in the economy, Huhtamaki engaged WasteAid to inspire, refine and develop locally-appropriate circular economy innovations in India, Vietnam and South Africa.
WasteAid works with a wide range of businesses, governments and institutions to help improve the way wastes are managed globally. Without waste collection, people have to dump or burn their waste, leading to poor health, degrading the environment and causing climate emissions. Conversely, an inclusive circular economy puts people at the heart of sustainable resource management, maximising the benefits of recycling for current and future generations.
Huhtamaki has pledged to design 100% of its packaging products to be compostable, recyclable or reusable by 2030, so there is a growing opportunity for small businesses and community-based organisations to ensure these materials re-enter the value chain and use them to generate an income. The flexible plastics market is projected to grow year-on-year, and local innovations like those of Shree Guru Plastics will help make sure that once used they are not discarded, but instead repurposed to bring wider benefits to society.