The Plastic Queen Anita Ahuja
Anita Ahuja turned discarded plastic bags into a valuable resource.
This is a story of a woman who challenged stereotypes to empower herself and a marginalised section of society through sheer perseverance, vision and will.
Anita Ahuja is a social entrepreneur who turned plastic waste into fashion accessories as she ensured gainful employment for the rag pickers.
Her organization, CONSERVE, has created a lucrative business venture out of plastic waste. Using a proprietary process, they transform discarded plastic bags into a variety of fashionable products that are sold in high-end retail outlets abroad. The NGO employs around three hundred workers and involves them in all aspects of the business, allowing them to build equity and learn useful skills.
Ahuja started Conserve, an upcycling NGO in 1998. Now she employs several Delhi rag pickers to collect the polyurethane bags, clean them, process them and make them into fashion accessories. She sells the items to Parisian boutiques and health food store chains in the U.S.A dozen men and women are hunched over sewing machines in a workshop in an industrial area in New Delhi. They are making totes from a blue fabric that is neither cloth nor leather. It’s polyethylene. The source: plastic bags that once contained garbage. Now the totes are adorned with labels of designers from Germany, France and Russia, along with that of the creator: Conserve, a Delhi nonprofit organization.
Ahuja, 47, started Conserve in the living room of some friends who were taking up issues like sewage and garbage. One project was to recycle the kitchen waste of an entire neighbourhood in south Delhi to make compost. That project didn’t quite work but led her to the idea of doing something about plastic bags. In Delhi plastic bags filled with garbage are often strewn around overflowing bins on nearly every corner. “They have no resale value, so no one picks them up,” she says.
Obtaining a regular supply of plastic bags wasn’t as easy as it appeared. In India recycling is in the hands of contractors who control giant garbage bins in each neighbourhood. Only ragpickers with permission from the contractor get to scavenge through piles of trash for anything with a resale value, using bare hands and mostly without any masks or other equipment.
“It is very difficult for any outsider to get in,” says Ahuja, a petite lady with a sing-song voice and a constant smile on her face even as she details her toughest moments. Ahuja has put together a group of 50 garbage collectors who, acting as middlemen, buy the plastic bags from 150 pickers in different pockets of the city. They haul in 100 pounds of plastic a day. The bags, sliced open, are washed in detergent, dipped in basil-scented water and hung out in the sun to dry, before being layered and compressed by heat in an ovenlike contraption. It takes 80 to 100 plastic bags and 30 minutes to create a sheet of plastic a yard on a side. Staff and professional tailors around the city then cut and sew the sheets into Conserve’s belts, bags and wallets.
She has turned down suggestions that she hand over the fabric so retailers can get the products made in existing, approved factories in China. “Making the fabric [alone] is not that profitable,” she complains. “Why should the profitable part of the business go to someone else?”
Bharti Sharma, a mother of one daughter, does quality control in the workshop and represents the organization at trade fairs–a long way from her rag picking days. “I’ve worked here seven years, and my life is so good [that] I have no plans of leaving this place,” she says.
Waste collection is a mammoth task and the city municipal corporations often rely on private contractors to carry out the task. Those contractors hire ragpickers, who are poorly paid and work in dangerous and dirty conditions at the bottom of the recycling chain. They sell the plastic they gather to small waste dealers, who, in turn, sell it to larger dealers, who finally make use of the material
Although ragpickers perform a significant role by reclaiming recyclable waste from the garbage stream, they are regularly exploited by authorities, who demolish their slums for development projects, and by contractors, who do not pay minimum wages. Conservative estimates put the number of ragpickers in the city of New Delhi alone at 80,000. Most are migrants from rural India and neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh. Because they are uneducated, ragpickers generally lack additional skills and alternative sources of income. As some of the poorest members of society, they are disenfranchised and neglected by policymakers.
Conserve hires poor women in the slums of east Delhi to collect, sort, weigh, and clean plastic bags from the waste generated daily by the city’s 14 million residents. Conserve employs almost three hundred people and pays them approximately Rs 3,000 a month, significantly more than the women would earn selling plastic to the local waste dealer. It offers this poor and disenfranchised segment of society security, identity, and dignity, thereby paving the way for a better life.
Anita’s next step is to increase the scope of Conserve by scaling up its production capacities. She soon hopes to manufacture one million square meters of plastic sheets a year, using 300 tons of waste plastic and employing five hundred rag pickers in the process. She already has buyers lined up and is in talks with international investors. Anita is also looking to replicate her business model in other parts of India and is negotiating with large European chains for additional retail opportunities.
Anita lives in Delhi with her husband and two children. Anita also credits her husband, Shalabh, for the success of the project. While she handles more of the social aspects, Shalabh addresses the commercial.
People may run after a profitable business but there are very few people who think about helping other people. Nowadays every organization needs highly qualified people in their every single department, which is right to an extent, but we as a society are supposed to undertake the issue of illiteracy and help people so that they don’t have to risk their lives and become scavengers. And even if they do, the society including us is required to make them feel respected because none of the jobs is bigger or smaller.
Featured image: The youth