40. The School (for entrepreneurs) with Kanka Ahuja from Plastiskul

Supporting entrepreneurs to create businesses from upcycling waste.

Pristine Ocean: Kanika Ahuja, welcome to the Pristine Ocean Podcast.

Kanika: Thank you so much for having me today.

Pristine Ocean: Kanika, where are you sitting?

Kanika: I'm from Delhi. We are running the Plastiskul secretariat from India this year, but the Plastiskul founders are spread across three continents in Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Pristine Ocean: What would you see if you looked out the window?

Kanika: Oh, there's this Aravali mountain range outside from my window right now. And it's the monsoon. So it looks really pretty. It's all lash green forest, which is a rare site in Delhi. And for ones like the sky is, are blue, it's cloudy and sunny, and we don't have a pollution problem.

Pristine Ocean: Straight to the heart of the matter with pollution.

Kanika: Deli's become quite infamous for the air pollution problem.

Pristine Ocean: So you're talking about air pollution. Plastiskul is about plastic. Can you say a few words around the plastic pollution situation in Delhi.

Kanika: Yes, plastic waste in Delhi. Like as much as in other cities, it's become a very severe problem and Delhi more so, because since it's a landlocked city, We in a very populated city. We don't even have landfill space anymore. The landfills that have been assigned by the government they're at like five times the capacity, which is not only hampering the soil and water under these, under this land, but it's also creating really accidental events like the over spillage of garbage or like even cows and dogs eating all of this garbage. This is just polluting all the flora, and fauna today, and the communities that live near this landfill.

Pristine Ocean: When did you personally first be become aware of plastic pollution?

Kanika: So it was actually a really long time ago. I was I think maybe 12 years old. And I was part of the environment club in school. And we had gone for this river cleanup program. The Yamuna river flows through Delhi. And as soon as it lands in Delhi, it becomes completely polluted because of the industrial and households, which that's coming in today, it's even more polluted because of the plastic waste and textile waste that the river carries.

And when we had gone on this river cleaner program, all the students were lined across the banks of the river. And we took, like, we had these sticks with us and we were pulling out garbage from the river. That was the first time I realized that you know, how much plastic is really getting wasted.

And over the years it has just increased. And fortunately, like, you know, most of my family members also have been working in the environment sector. In different sectors of the environment for energy efficiency, waste management pollution control laws. And so I have from childhood been very aware of these P problems and how they've been growing.

And even my first visit to a landfill was at when I was 14 or 15 years old. That was when I was first, truly touched by how the community over there lives. And so along. Waste as a problem. It was also a problem of the waste workers. So to, you know, the goal became to design a solution that is also inclusive of that community.

Pristine Ocean: I was really curious about an expression you used when you were describing your early experiences with how much plastic was being wasted. rather than how much waste plastic is landing in the environment. Can you talk a little bit more about that?

Kanika: So I think India as a country, we are not very culturally. We have not been very inclined to waste things. When we see how our grandmothers lived and, you know, we are still from a generation who has seen our grandmothers, saving everything, reusing and recycling, everything. From textiles to containers to using open groceries, Russian.

So this packaging is still very new to India. And right now it's still in like the tier one tier two cities. But if there is a aspiration. Because of like the influence from the west packaged products and like now even packaged vegetables, like all the higher end grocery stores have started selling packaged vegetables, which is just going in the wrong direction now.

But because, you know, there is this aspiration to mimic the west. We are losing that culture of just being green. At earlier, it used to be because, you know, we didn't want to spend as much money. So as incomes are increasing in India, these aspirations to mimic the west are increasing, but we are trying to salvage those traditions, keep that ed alive.

And because, you know, this is not the time that India can afford to get into the industrial revolution and mimic the west in these kind of sectors.

Pristine Ocean: So I'm hearing a, a bit of a tension. The Western single use influence and, and a more traditional sense of, of reusing material.

Kanika: Yes. So, I mean the Indian government also at this point is creating a lot of awareness and they've taken very strict steps. On curbing single use plastics. And India is one of the first countries who put a strict ban on single use plastics. And, but how that policy is treated on the ground, we yet to see.

And and also like, you know, it cannot be a harsh step like that because the plastic industry in India is quite big. And so if we just, we can't, if we just turn off tap, there is a lot of also people who are going to be unemploy. And so before we make this transition at a such a sudden step, we also need to re-skill these people into like, you know, circular jobs of the future so that we have an inclusive shift towards a circular economy.

Pristine Ocean: Okay. You're already talking about the future and you've already created the organization. Platy school. Tell us a little bit about plasty school.

Kanika: So plastic school was founded in like the idea came up in 2019.

Pristine Ocean: The idea came up! Whose idea was it?

Kanika: So actually it was a very collaborative discussion that led to this idea. So like, I, the, I mean, it's not a one person owner owned idea. It was like orchestrated by this event that Toby all were at. This was uh, by its soul sign. So science is this French organization, which barrier France had funded to create solutions for plastic packaging that is environmentally friendly.

And so they had invited innovators from across the world and who were working in recycling or natural solutions and to just, you know, get together in a room to brainstorm if we can like come up with a solution for packaging.

Pristine Ocean: Okay. Just taking a step back. So you were already involved at that stage in thinking about solutions.

Kanika: Yes. So because all of us were, came from backgrounds where we were already developing something, either with plastics or like creating natural materials from like mushroom waste or like fish scales to develop new materials. So a lot of material engineers, material innovators were present at that conference.

And so my organization, my Indian organization, conserved India, which is like apparent organization that has already been working in PLA waste since 2006 developed a technology to convert single use plastics like polythene bags and wrappers like multilayered packaging into a sort of vegan leather.

And this material we've been using to craft fashion accessories and home decor products, basically to substitute leather. And this, our work in this field had led us to France to brainstorm on this, about how we can create food grade packaging, which is environment friendly. Getting into food grade packaging is another step.

Absolutely. Because, you know, there are severe norms that have to be followed. And it was interesting to have to know all of these people from across the world who were, you know, developing these ideas. And we all felt that you know, in our own countries we've been working on these solutions for like some of us, like for many years.

But, you know, the impact that we've been able to achieve is not that much, you know, looking at the scale of the problem. And so that is why we all like thought that we need to put our technologies together put our solutions together and, you know, create a bigger model that can be more adaptable.

That is more flexible to fit into different geographies for different problems. And then like cater it. Different locations, depending on what the problem is over there. And so this is how, like, you know, plastic school was born out of a discussion. So that's why like, you know, it was a collaborative, extremely collaborative idea to come up.

Pristine Ocean: And what was the original idea?

Kanika: So we all had this problem that, you know, like we wanted more technologies to come into India because like India, you know, we have a lot of, we have this large waste worker population. Which are, you know, highly exploited, a lot of society. And they are actually the most important link for the waste management system, but they have no recognition because the sector is not formalized.

So the only thing that they get is like, you know, collection and segregation of waste, which is very low paying. So technology is like these, you know, when they come to India, then we can train these waste workers and upgrade this, upgrade their skills, and actually formalize them into micro enterprises.

So when we had gone for that conference, that was actually on our mind that we want to get more technologies to India. And similarly, like, you know, people from Uganda, from Kenya, they all felt the same way.

Pristine Ocean: So the problem before your eyes was focused on the waste workers and their lack of organization, their lack of structures to provide them with adequate salary and organization safety and health.

Kanika: Yes. So our vision and to conserve India has always been twofold. It has been environmental and social.

Pristine Ocean: Okay.

Kanika: So that's why like aiding the waste workers is definitely important on the agenda, but so is the problem of plastic waste. Yep. And so that is why, like, you know, we wanted to understand like, what are more innovations that can be adapted to the Indian climate.

And similarly, like, you know, other countries felt the same way because they're also dealing with, you know, very similar

Pristine Ocean: What, which other countries were, you were coming to the table? Brainstorming with.

Kanika: I mean, there were people from south America from California from. Other countries as well, but the group that got together, mm-hmm for this project who were like, we like, you know, we had a similar thought on where what we could do together were our partners today are from Kenya, Vietnam Zambia, Zambia, and Uganda and

Pristine Ocean: You establish this focus. Waste work. Is that right?

Kanika: On plastic pollution, plastic pollution. Yeah. Yeah. So plastic pollution is the first goal and then it is to do it inclusively and then to have like it as a school so that it is

Pristine Ocean: So I, I can already hear this, the school part in, in plastic school.

Kanika: Yes. So the school is too it is like too pronged, right? It's also skilling waste workers, and it's also creating awareness for the youth and general public

Pristine Ocean: So what is Plastiskul?

Kanika: So Plastiskul has these basically, you know, these three agendas that I spoke about and it is we accomplish this by creating micro factor. So all of us came, came with our own different technologies. We also modeled it on like the work being done done by fab labs and precious plastics and how we can incorporate these kind of technologies into like, like one platform.

Pristine Ocean: Micro factories might be a term that some people have not heard. What is a micro factory?

Kanika: So microfactory is like a small scale factory. So we customize these in like deployable shipping containers and they can also be made as mobile units. And so these have small scale machinery. So we are not talking about industrial grade machinery or so the power requirements, the import output of course, is at a smaller scale.

So it's meant for like limited editions manufacturing and, you know, for short production. And so this is how, like, we wanted to become a stepping stone for entrepreneurs who are coming into this field. And because plastic recycling itself has it's, you know, becoming a very fast growing industry and just for the economic value of it.

And, but a lot of entrepreneurs don't have the capital expenses either to get into, you know, to start their own factory. So this also if like class two micro factories exist in like, you know, different countries and different locations, this can also be used as for entrepreneurs, as a stepping stone to, you know, get their short production runs done and start their businesses and collect capital to become

Pristine Ocean: so it's like a sort of template for, for entrepreneurs. And you also mentioned to organization fab lab and precious plastics. A lot of people know these names. Maybe you could just say a few words around that for the people who don't.

Kanika: So precious plastics, you know, it's become the most popular name for like DIY machinery for plastics up cycling. Mm-hmm. But like a gap that we found while building Plastiskul, especially coming, most of us coming from developing countries was that, you know, like we are people who looking to get into plastics like the plastics recycling business like firstly, precious plastics machines are not meant for a business.

You know, it's still like very relatively small scale mm-hmm and. So it's more you know, you know, like for a passion project or. You know, for a hobby, but we wanted to create assortment of machines and so that people can experiment, firstly, it can become like a design lab or like a prototyping lab.

And then secondly, only for like short production runs like this limited editions manufacturing was a concept that, you know, we've got from fab labs and we want to like, Products that are for the local needs of the territory. And micro factories are not meant for mass producing items. And then precious plastics.

Pristine Ocean: Okay. So you provide the, the tools, the physical tools. You provide the training and you provide the, the business model I presume, and the schooling to put it all together to make enable and empower a local entrepreneur to make a business out of this. Can you say a few things about the, the financial side? Margins in the waste area are very thin. How do you make money out of this?

Kanika: The Plastiskul micro factory in itself is a self-sustaining model because the products that we are producing like these can be extremely like low end products to extremely high end products. And so it can, we can, but, so that's why the value addition matters. At Conserve India, we have a value addition of 3000% for products that we are making.

And because, you know, it was very important for us to have like a fair wage for everybody involved in the supply chain. So even with the Plastiskul micro factories, like in the pilot that we are running right now, we are averaging the. To like have a high enough value addition, like we are making, you know, from low value products that can be like sold in the community itself to certain high grade high value products that can be you know, sold at like higher boutique and fashion stores.

And so that the average value pro produced can be high enough to support the cost of the project as well as to make

Pristine Ocean: More utility products. Tell us a little bit about the types of products that you have in mind.

Kanika: With the Uganda micro factory, we are going to be pro producing things for school children. And like these are stationary products and like scale toys pencil boxes. So because the Uganda municipality has already placed in order for the schools in the municipality. So that's the prime route of products that is being taken right.

But we are also experimenting with the building like furniture. We might have seen some images of the furniture that was produced. These are like table tops, outdoor furniture. So these are going, these will be high value products because design sensibility is an aesthetics. Being taken to give it a high value product value.

And beyond that, we'll also be experimenting with construction tiles and these will be low cost housing tiles, which can be used in the community itself.

Pristine Ocean: Wow. That's really exciting. And I can imagine that the, the school kids, when they, when they have. Those articles and know the story around them is already a, an educational factor there.

Kanika: Yes. And the good thing is that they, they can come to the micro factory and also like, you know, learn how to make them themselves. And so this is how we are also trying to create more awareness, to look at plastic waste as a

Pristine Ocean: Fantastic. Where do you see yourself in five?

Kanika: In five years, we want this to be a meta network of micro factories. So currently, you know, we are working on the pilot, but we are very keen on getting micro factories to all the founder countries, like by, in the next two years. And we are also looking for members to come in from across the world.

From different like areas, different geographies because you know, plastic waste is a menace everywhere and we have the machinery and technology now to support any kind of plastic waste. And so this is something that can be deployed in every locality to decentralize how we process plastic waste. And we want to create this meta network where everybody like, you know, who has a Plastiskul micro factory is connected on this network.

They can have knowledge sharing, like new innovation and, you know, contribute to this moment and, and not just be like, you know, micro factory owners, but contribute to this movement, have a peer to peer learning so that we can really change the plastic pollution problem.

Pristine Ocean: That's a really compelling story. And I think a lot of people would find that really interesting. How could they get involved?

Kanika: Please write to us at hello@plastiskul.org. We are happy to touch base with you. We are looking for more members and people to join us, to join this movement with.

Pristine Ocean: Ahuja all the best with this fantastic project. I'm really excited for you. And I'm really looking forward to hearing about how it develop.

Kanika: Thank you so much, Peter. And thank you for covering our work.


All Posts

Almost done…

We just sent you an email. Please click the link in the email to confirm your subscription!