Q&A with rePurpose

Written by Kajsa IngelssonJuly 17, 2019

Trash and recycling might not be the most glamorous things to talk or think about, but that did not scare the funders of rePurpose off. Where others only saw stinking heaps of trash, they saw a dysfunctional system in desperate need of change. Let me introduce you to a system so revolutionary it might just being one of the most important pieces to saving our oceans!

Where did the idea for rePurpose come from?

Our journey started almost 2 years ago when my co-founders and I visited Deonar East in Mumbai, Asia’s 2nd largest landfill. There, we saw a garbage truck enter every 2 minutes around the clock to dump waste generated in the city every day. There was a moment where we got off the car, and while we were covering our noses from the thick stench of the landfill, we noticed that we were standing between literals mountains of plastic on the one end and the city’s endless skyline on the other end. We realized that this simply cannot go on – something had to change about the way our society produces, consumes, and disposes on a daily basis.  

As we were discussing about this and came out of the landfill, we saw a group of waste pickers  – these were workers who make a meager living every day by scavenging for waste like plastic and metal in the landfill itself to be sold for recycling, picking up one item at a time with their bare hands. We spoke to one of them – his name was Bilal, he had worked there since he was 7 years old. He was 27 at time, but had the look of a 50 year old man who had seen everything. You can’t blame him – it’s almost a monthly occurrence that a trash heap would literally collapse on itself because of fires led by methane gas released from our food waste, causing a member of his community who happen to be picking waste on top to be buried alive without anybody knowing for weeks and sometimes years. 

At one point during the conversation, he pointed to the big sack of plastic bottles on his back and said: you probably threw away one of these bottles after using it for 15 minutes, but this has been my work and my livelihood for the past 20 years. What Bilal said that day formed the backbone of who we are as a social enterprise today: because really, we can easily do away with plastic bottles in our lives, but us consumers and brands all over the world offload our collective environmental responsibility onto the poorest parts of our society. 

After this, we came back to the drawing board, did hundreds of expert interviews, spent 8 months embedded on the ground with waste management initiatives in Mumbai, and finally put the pieces together. At the other side of the world, we realized that people and businesses all over the world have become worried about climate, overwhelmed by the media’s “doom and gloom” predictions, and confused on how to actually live more low-carbon. Petitions for corporates to change, melting ice caps, apocalyptic climate predictions – the ways we have tried making people care have both failed & drained our empathy. 

That’s when we realized we could put the pieces together and connect the consciousness & willingness to make a difference with organizations and creating impact in the developing world. 

Offsetting in other areas (eg Carbon) can sometimes receive criticism, why is this scheme of offsetting plastic different? Can you tell us how this whole thing works?

Carbon offset receives criticism because it can be mis-used by industrial polluters and big corporates as a way to buy their way out of their environmental impact. We see rePurpose as completely separate than that and it’s primarily an easy and engaging way for consumers to understand, take responsibility, and reduce their plastic footprint.

It all starts at the interactive calculator we have developed to help individuals worldwide understand their consumption because how is one supposed to take action on an issue when we don’t even understand our contribution to it? Then, you get the opportunity to offset your footprint primarily as a way to create impact where it’s needed, i.e. in developing countries where recycling systems are not present & waste is indiscriminately dumped in landfills, burned or flushed into the oceans. 

Most consumers in the developed world don’t really know this but for more than 25 years, rich Western countries like the US, Canada, and the UK have shipped their plastic waste to poorer Asian countries who struggle to even handle their own waste simply because the economics of recycling their own citizens’ garbage at home do not make sense. Plastic is therefore a global issue. After China, which used to take in two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste banned all new imports at the end of 2017, more waste has been diverted to countries like India, Thailand, and Malaysia where it is at risk of getting incinerated, landfilled, or dumped into oceans. Given plastics’ global nature, It is paramount for us to make a cohesive effort and build up recycling systems in cities and countries that really need them. Unlike any other issue we face, environmental destruction is a burden shared by the planet at large, no matter where you are in the world.

Then, we say that offset is not the end of what it means to go #PlasticNeutral. The footprint calculator is not only used as a way to estimate a consumer’s unique footprint, but with data about the way you use plastic, we can actually forward you uniquely personalized conscious living tips & tricks that help you reduce your unique impact on the planet. 

We find that a lot of people care about this issue and want to take action, but simply don’t know where to start – this is a way for us to get consumers excited about and an easy entry point on how they could live a more zero-waste, low-carbon lifestyle. The tips and tricks are based on your unique consumption patterns as well as which region of the world you are located to truly make them relevant, super actionable, and easy to implement 

At the end of the day, #zerowaste is an ideal, a dream that is oftentimes not realistic for the regular millennial. We at rePurpose wants to provide people the opportunity to both do their best and then offset the rest. 

Can you talk more on the decision to focus on low-value plastics? And how logistically do you intercept them before they reach landfill?

Anywhere in the developing world, if you pay attention to the kinds of plastic that are actually littering our streets, beaches, and landfills, you will notice a trend – it’s dominated by low-value plastic like to-go containers, candy wrappers, and plastic bags. 

These materials are classified as low-value plastic because they are extremely difficult to recycle. Shanghai, Cairo, New Delhi, Nairobi, Jakarta – a vibrant informal recycling industry do exists in cities worldwide and employs tens of millions of workers who form the backbone of the local waste management infrastructure. Unlike the high-value materials (PET, HDPE) with an established recycling supply chain, low-value plastic is not even collected by these workers because it inherently lacks any financial value. As a result, they have become the most commonly found items degrading in and polluting our environment. 

At rePurpose, we believe that the most genuine way to offset your plastic footprint is to deal with plastic that would have otherwise never been recycled. Offsetting through the recycling of high-value plastics like PET is not a good practice because it offers marginal environmental additionality: by nature of their high value, these materials would have likely been picked up and recycled anyway by workers in the informal industry . 

Instead, through your offset contribution, we put a price on low-value plastic and pay informal workers to intercept it before it reaches the oceans or landfills, adding a crucial income stream for these marginalized workers in addition to their work with materials like PET and HDPE. The way our PlasticNeutral organizations intercept low-value plastic is through the waste collection system they have already built up for other waste streams, from apartment complexes, offices, restaurants and corporate parks across the cities they work in. With the “subsidy” from the consumer going #PlasticNeutral, they can afford to now segregate low-value waste out of the piles destined to landfill and send it for recycling. 

After the plastic is collected, we either use it to make bricks and roads or co-process it through pyrolysis, a practice that uses low-value plastics as an energy source in industries that typically burn coal to meet their high energy demands (e.g. cement kilns). Through this process, low-value plastics kick out coal and are cleanly incinerated. We know this system is not perfect: however, given the extremely low value of these materials, the high costs to separate them, and the lack of technology to recover them, co-processing is the best solution for these plastics that would have otherwise been landfilled or flushed into oceans. 

In the beginning you were telling us about Bilal the waste picker. Please explain the role of informal recycling workers and why it’s important to support them?

Over 50 million informal workers worldwide spend their entire lives dealing with the consequences of our mindless consumption, all without recognition as environmental heroes or access to basic healthcare or education that traps them in a generational cycle of abject poverty. In India, a waste picker on average spends 12 hours a day scavenging for recyclable waste in dumpsters and landfills, earning less than $5 from an exploitative supply chain. 

People often fell into this profession because of alcoholism, drug abuse, personal incidents or simply the caste they belong to. In India, many waste pickers are Dalit women, otherwise known as “casteless” or untouchables”, who have been discriminated against for generations without the ability to move up the ladder and live a better life. And one time, I had met a former construction worker who fell from the 6th floor of the construction site  – he lost his arm in that incident, was fired, and had to resort to picking up garbage on the streets of Mumbai. 

They form the backbone of a lot of these countries’ existing recycling systems, but their efforts are not recognized by the government or the citizens in these megacities who generate the trash in the first place. We believe that these millions of workers have a crucial role to play in a future circular economy because a circular economy is not going create itself and needs people to actually maintain given its collaborative nature. Going forward, these grassroots networks can form the basis of more sustainable systems that truly “close the loop”. For example, while our partner organizations currently employ a network of waste workers to collect, clean, and process waste that is then sent to recycling, these very networks can be used to establish 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.

Moreover, the socioeconomic plight of waste workers is not another poverty problem in the developing world that is purely contained in the developing world. Because the West exports so much of its plastic trash to developing countries like India and the Philippines, there is a real connection between the waste one throws away in Stockholm, London, or San Francisco and the pickers who are scavenging that waste from landfills in India. Exported plastic end up in unauthorized destinations on a daily basis. 

How did you find your partners and what criteria did you use to select them?

We have spent the past 3 years learning the ins and outs of the waste management industry in India (including having written an honors thesis about it). Recognizing that we will never know as much as our local partners, we spent 8 months full-time in India on a human-centered design-driven process  with both breadth (touching upon every single stakeholder within the Indian circular economy sector) and depth (zeroing in our target beneficiaries: waste scavengers, recycling workers, and the families & communities behind them). 

From over 40 potential organizations, we vetted potential partners along three criteria: 1) organizational track record: amount recycled, years present in the cities, quality of operational infrastructure 2) implementational capacity: do they have the technical and human resource requirements in order to implement the offset 3) engagement with informal sector: are they engaged with waste pickers & local informal industries, and how genuine is that engagement? do they have the trust & goodwill of the communities? 

We came down to three organizations who have done waste management as well as engaged with the informal industry for years if not decades. 

Can you give us an overview of the specific work your partners do?

We have three PlasticNeutral partners, Saahas Zero Waste in Bangalore, Waste Ventures India in Hyderabad, and Aasra Welfare Association in Mumbai. These organizations create and run ethical and efficient waste collection & management systems wherever they are located. On the collection side, they help apartment complexes, universities, and corporate campuses across their cities adopt on-site segregation of waste (most places in India don’t even segregate their waste dry vs. wet and all of it goes to landfill) and collect the segregated waste from them on a daily basis with a team of field staff (many of them are rescued ex-waste pickers whom these organizations have rehabilitated and trained). The waste is then transported to the organizations’ dedicated segregation & processing centers to be separated, baled and sent for authorized recycling destinations. You can actually see a tour of one of our partners’ material recovery facilities on our Instagram home page under story highlights.

What about all the talks of downcycling? Can plastic really only be recycled once, or do you have different ideas on this in regards to closing the loop?

In a nutshell – recycling is a last-resort, but band aids are important to minimize and avoid the damage that would have been created if the plastic had instead ended up being landfilled, indiscriminately burned that release toxic fumes into the air, and flushed into the oceans to be digested by animals & ending up on our own plates. Because at the end of the day, low-value plastic wouldn’t have had an end destination if it wasn’t for a financial incentive to support a green process. 

We agree that recycling of plastic waste is not the ideal solution, yet it is a necessary step towards a circular economy, particularly the kind that we at rePurpose strive for – efficient AND ethical. By increasing the capacity of waste worker organizations, we are directly working to establish grassroots-level systems that intercept plastic waste before it turns into an environmental pollutant.

Today, the most economically feasible way of dealing with this collected waste is recycling or co-processing it. However, going forward, these grassroots networks can unlock more sustainable systems that truly close the resource loop. For example, they can be used to establish product-recovery models wherein reusable packaging is collected from consumers, cleaned, and subsequently sent back to manufacturers for reuse.

How do you cleanly burn low-value plastics for energy? Is there a capture system for chemicals released during burning?

The pyrolysis of low-value plastic like wrappers happens at more than 1800 C. No byproducts are released demanding a capture so it’s not needed as it’s a clean burn. The only emissions from the process is CO2, but it’s used as a replacement of coal which is a lot more environmentally damaging.

Give three reasons why plastic is such a huge problem? 

  1. Plastic damages our natural ecosystems on land & in the oceans. It kills marine life, it pollutes the air when burned, and breaks down into microplastic that then ends up in our food everywhere in the world. 
  2. Plastic pollution is challenging to tackle because it’s global in nature. Plastic tossed away on one end of the world has the potential to end up on the shore of the other end of the world. 
  3. Plastic is an addictive habit, a habit not borne by certain populations but our ENTIRE society. It will take concerted effort to help us collectively kick our plastic habit. 

How much does it costs to offset ones personal plastic consumption with you?

It depends on the individual’s unique plastic footprint, but it usually lands anywhere between $3-$5 per month. 

Why India? Do you have any plans on expanding to other countries?

We chose India not only because of the massive scale of poor waste management in cities across the country, but also the socioeconomic complications associated with poor plastic waste management. The informal recycling industry flourishes here and there are plenty of irregularities and unethicalities like child labor, hazardous work environments, and illegal burning of waste. In India, a majority of waste pickers are Dalit women, otherwise known as “casteless” or untouchables”, who have been discriminated against for generations without the ability to move up the ladder and live a better life. 

A large problem means a large potential opportunity for impact. Another reason we chose India was because of the ecosystem: unlike other smaller countries, there were actually reputable initiatives and a supporting government/business ecosystem very much motivated to take on this challenge. This is important in order to guarantee that our offset projects are actually conducted in an efficient manner! 

We have plans to use our operations in India as a track record and use the lessons learned from here to expand our impact to Southeast Asia, specifically the Philippines and Indonesia. 

Lastly, what’s your top three tips on how to become a green eco-warrior?

  1. Understand your footprint and how you impact the environment: everybody consumes so differently and we can only take smart action after we understand how we contribute.
  2. Take small daily actions that form good habits: often times, it’s that first step that is the most daunting. Everything gets easier from there!
  3. Advocate for others to change: let’s make #zerowaste mainstream and go out of our individual echo chambers.