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Komal Panwar

Blogger & Singer

Kanika Ahuja Of Conserve India Is Bringing Design Students & Ragpickers Together To Create Fashion

  • IWB Post
  •  September 28, 2017


I always get an earful every time I leave the lights switched on. It is a reminder for me to be more environmentally conscious.
I should learn a little from Conserve India. They have been adopting ‘upcycle’ as a solution to India’s excess waste issue. To tackle it all, Kanika Ahuja and her family took the weight on their shoulders.

I got in touch with her to know more about the project.

How did Conserve India happen?

It was back in 1998 when my parents began with Conserve India. When the project was launched, it didn’t recycle/upcycle waste. It was dedicated to creating efficient energy. We created an energy efficient council in slums around Delhi.img_1

We recently decided to take up recycling of plastic. Let’s face it, today, plastic waste is one of the major issues that persist. It was two years ago when I decided to establish an upcycle market.

What are some of the waste materials that you recycle?

Plastic, tyre tubes, textile waste, cement sacks, and more. Though there are a few waste materials that we really want to upcycle, and we are figuring out ways to do it.

And, what are those?

Empty snack packets. The streets filled with empty packets of chips remind us how far we are from reaching the goal.

In what ways can people recycle waste materials at home?

Paper and cloth are the simplest to upcycle and reuse. For example, you can make gift wrappings out of cloth. You can make wall hangings using paper. Let’s take a step forward and bring the change. Are you going to start with something, too?

I have a box full of handmade sheets, and about an entire cupboard full of clothes I don’t wear!

You can begin by donating.img_3

That’s a great idea.


Who designs the upcycled products?

We have tie-ups with design schools through which students come to us and design our products. Other than that, Anita and I design them.

Share a story of one ragpicker whose life changed since he started working with Conserve India.

Shameen joined us back in 2002. Soon, he started with his trainee program and gradually became the waste processing head. He is now the master tailor for all of our products.

When we approached the Madanpur slums at first, people were not really interested. They didn’t see any potential in what we were doing. The men would go for day-jobs and women would stay home. So we gave them a task! Now, the women would segregate waste, and some of the men would assist us, too. They agreed because this way, they would get double their salaries!img_3Though there was a little bit of communication and language barrier because many of the families working with us were from Bangladesh.

We found a way to fix this. We realized that they were fascinated by Bollywood. So, when it was time for segregation of plastic on the basis of their colors, we named them after Bollywood actors. So, if I called the slum and said, I need 10kg of Salman Khan more, I’ll get a certain colored plastic waste.

How do you spread the word?

We have been exporting for ten years, and we have little to no presence in India. We get our buyers through the fair trade network. But, to be honest, we also feel that India is ready for upcycled products. Yes, we feel that they are now ready to accept it.

What was the first product you ever created?

A handbag!img_4

One key to success for the environmental entrepreneur?

Perseverance. People always say that if you are an environmental entrepreneur, you can’t make a profit and have to spend from your pocket at the same time. I feel that it is possible. Profit seems like a corporate agenda when it’s really about surviving.

What has been the role of your family throughout?

They have been extremely supportive. Both of my uncles are lawyers. They told me that any article on public land belongs to the state. And so, the landfills are also state-owned property, so working through all of that was very beneficial for the family.

And then again, it’s so easy to trust your family.

What rules do you follow to live environment-friendly life?

Well, I try to not use plastic bags. I keep a big bag with me at all times, so that I don’t have to use plastic bags. Of course, a complete exclusion is not possible, but we can at least try the best from our side.

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