Ecopreneur Wricha, Who Upcycles Pens, Finds Eco-Pal In Her 6 Y.O. Daughter
- IWB Post
- February 26, 2018
How often do you find your hand reaching to the pocket, only to be greeted by the ‘Ughh, who did I lend my pen to, or, where did I lose it again!’ questions? Ever wondered what happens to the pens you keep using and throwing, or losing?
By now you must have checked if your pen rests safe in the pocket or not, but Wricha Johari and Prakshal Mehta’s concern didn’t just end there. It was three years ago when these two young EcoPreneurs, taken by surprise by these very questions at the Ahmedabad Chapter of World Economic Forum, kickstarted their “PenPals” journey.
Perturbed as they were left, the duo decided to dig deeper, and what followed next was hands-on research concerning “What happens to the use-and-throw Pens!” Pens being a non-uniform entity, and constituting three different elements – plastic body, chemical ink, and metallic nib, can neither be recycled nor do ragpickers categorize them under “plastic waste”.
Wricha and Prakshal, who have also worked in the capacity of Global Shapers, are the co-founders of PenPals, a project exclusively dealing with upcycling of discarded pens. It is designed to serve as a self-sustaining model and aims at making products that are utility-driven.
“It is only if people can use the products that they will realize the worth of things they throw away as waste – Waste generation needs to be minimized,” is what Wricha told us in a quick chat. More on it below:
Tell us the story of the two pals behind ‘PenPals’? How and when did you two meet?
Prakshal and I have been friends since college, we both hold Masters degree in Development Communication. And it was during the college projects when we first realized our common inclination towards environmental issues. Our internship and dissertation were also environmental communication focused. We graduated and moved on to our individual jobs, only to find our paths meet again.
“Environmental development is one sector, where it is very difficult to bring all the stakeholders on one platform, and we both had tapped this issue on our individual journeys.”
They then joined hands to start their venture, World Around You (WAY), with a prime objective to reach people from diverse domains, and find ways to sensitize them about the environment they live and breathe in.
How did you work out the upcycling process, did it demand prior research too?
Oh yes, the R&D process took us (way) too long. Since pens can’t be recycled, we had to look for methods to upcyle them. We could make art pieces or sculptures but our main objective was not to use the discarded pens to earn money, it was to make utilitarian products out of them. We wanted our products to find way to people’s homes and lives, to help meet the very purpose of making them realize the potential of the seemingly waste things, and thereby minimize waste generation.
From where did you start?
Our first step was a short pilot research that we did with 50 girls of class 9 of a municipal school, they were asked to simply collect discarded pens from anywhere they find, and you won’t believe the number of pens they could collect in a span of eight months – 500 kg of discarded pens! We were stunned, for if one small municipal school had the capacity of generating this quantity of unrecyclable pen-waste, what the larger statistics must be!
What steps does the cycle of upcycling pens involve?
We start with sorting, which has to be done categorically since pens nowadays come in different packaging and design. Also, many times people throw away usable pens, and then there are those that leak. So before moving to the next step of colouring, they are first segregated (which becomes a big hassle) and then cleaned.
This being only one side of the story, creative utilization of the pens then calls for conceptual designs of products, and the products have to be not only sustainable but also utility worthy. And finally, the requirement of a team of skilled artisans to create the said products! Until now we have made small furniture pieces, clocks, diaries, window blinds, books and pen stands, etc.
It seems to be a rather cost-generating process. Did you seek funding?
Yes, it is. But the cost is nowhere close to the cost that the environment otherwise pays on our behalf (Indeed). And the reason behind the current upscaled cost is the level of participation from people/stakeholders, which is rather low. We are not designers by profession, but having been turned down by various design institutes, we had to create the designs ourselves. But it’s all good in hindsight, “had we been designers, we would then have to bother about design-apprehensions too.” And we are glad that our venture has helped us create employment opportunities for a lot of people who don’t have permanent jobs – carpenters, weavers, and alike.
PenPals has collected an amount of 5 Lakh from crowdfunding and has also received a grant of 2 Lakh on winning the Gandhi Change Award.
If we peek into your studio, what would be the most unusual furniture piece to be found?
Our most unique product/furniture piece is the Black Box Chair. It is a multi-utilitarian product that can be used as a chair, a small storage box (for books perhaps), a bedside table. And it has lights fitted inside, so it gives the look of a beautiful rainbow-effect lamp as well!
Wricha, who happens to be a big fan of Imitiaz Ali, got a chance to present the black box chair to him, which he happily accepted and made a part of his minimal and furniture-free home interiors!
Speaking of pens, were there moments when you two sat chewing the pen-caps?
Oh, there were many. But it is a part of the game, even more when you have set out on an unconventional path. We have been greeted with challenges since the start. From addressing the problem to finding solutions, to seeking funds and collaboration of artists/designers. And of course, the mega process of upcycling.
So tell us Wricha, what triggered you to adopt a sustainable lifestyle?
Ah, there wasn’t an instance or a particular time frame that marks my taking on a sustainable lifestyle. I come from a family that has always believed in eco-friendly living. And after marriage, I moved into another that was also just as careful and always pro-recycling. My mother-in-law makes traditional dresses for my daughter using her old sarees, which is something my mother also used to do for me in college days, and my husband, who is an architect, is promoting construction of eco-friendly buildings. So we have been making efforts at various levels, but I am still far from tagging my lifestyle ‘completely sustainable’.
Wricha was selected to participate in the World Economic Forum Conference 2013, and has also received the Udgam Women’s Achievers Award.
Would you open for us a small window to your daily routine, where you can be found living your “minimize waste” motto?
Of course, I’d love to. So you’ll find my living area exhibiting these tables that have been made using spare parts of an old dilapidated car (My husband’s brain and efforts), then my father-in-law being a retired government officer has preserved all his now-antique chairs and tables, which constitutes the other side of our interior. The wall frames showcase the oldest souvenirs and articles. And of course, our cupboards display a wide variety of reused and redesigned clothes.
In my personal sphere, I try and be careful about the cosmetic products that I use, but there exist different-natured constraints, same being with food choice. But one thing that I am happy about is my gradually developing jewelry-recycling skillset. (She shared) I love vintage jewelry, and instead of buying, I now make them for myself, and for others too.
Can you recall an achievement for which you’d perhaps want to present a non-existent award to self?
Your question has reminded me of my six-year-old daughter. She has some understanding of her mother’s work and responds well to our family living style as well. But looking at her making her own little contributions is one thing that makes me really, really happy.
One instance in regard to which she shared with us, “Our apartment has two elevators, and where usually one presses buttons absent-mindedly, the little girl will always check which elevator is at what level, and only after having done the math of which is closer, does she presses the button. My once mentioned energy-saving logic found home in her head.”
I love vintage jewelry, and instead of buying, I now make them for myself, and for others too.
A memory of the sweetest pen written note sent to a (pen)friend?
(She laughs) By the time I reached that age when one can think of having friends beyond school and family, digital media had already spread its base, so where I love the idea of it, but sadly I never got to make one. And then excited she shared, “Oh but yeah, I remember sending long hand-written letters to my husband during our dating years!”
How sweet! And what would you attribute as your biggest takeaway on the journey so far?
Well, the biggest takeaway for me has come in the form of contentment. It is a long way and lot of work needs to be done, but the fact that I am doing my bit brings a unique sense of satisfaction (which holds true for both Prakshal and I). We are happy to be able to do justice with our role of being communicators, working towards bridging the gap between environment and people, which by the way is ironic given that we co-exist. But people’s attitude needs to be changed, and we are banking on our quirky utilitarian eco-products to expand our reach.
Wricha then made us pen down the Ecopreneurship Rules of Thumb:
- Recognize the problem you are addressing, find the probable solutions, and then hold on to your efforts and dedication.
- Be innovative and quirky with your ideas, but also gauge its acceptance and adaptability.
- Last but not the least, your model should be passion-driven and self-sustainable, for you don’t want to be giving up halfway!
Before penning-off, Wricha thanked us for the conversation, “It was a beautiful walk down the memory lane!” She also informed us about the recent registration of PenPals under Startup India and their on-going R&D for upcycling the chemical ink used in pens. If you have an idea to pitch in or wish to make a thoughtful eco-contribution, reach them through their Facebook Page (link below).
PenPals, Ahmedabad, India. 1,776 likes · 182 talking about this. PenPals is the world’s 1st initiative of making designer handicraft products by up-cycling waste pens.
This article was first published on November 29, 2017.