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How upcycling can help make our homes and hearts lighter

Upcycling helps us repurpose waste and once loved articles into objects that are both useful and decorative. Lounge profiles five inspiring initiatives

Amishi Shah started upcycling as a hobby in 2013. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Amishi Shah started upcycling as a hobby in 2013. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Fancy a funky sectional sofa fashioned out of tyres from your first car? Or a quilt made from your grandmother’s soft cotton saris to embrace your newborn?

Upcycling is a good way to repurpose waste without increasing your carbon footprint. But it is also, increasingly, a great way to hold on to things that you can’t part with but don’t have the room to keep.

In urban India, where spaces are getting smaller and individuals are focusing on living lighter, how can we hold on to things, especially in the light of the KonMari phenomenon? Take a flash-cleaning challenge and see for yourself. The worth of unused items in Indian homes has reached a staggering Rs78,300 crore, according to a 2016 survey by the online classifieds and retail portal OLX.

And then there is the matter of waste. According to a report in the Down To Earth magazine in January, urban India produces 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste every year—31 million tonnes of this is dumped in landfills. How do we deal with cities resembling garbage dumps?

Upcycling seems to be the answer to both questions.

One of the earliest uses of the word “upcycling" can be found in the interview of designer-architect Reiner Pilz in the October 1994 edition of Salvo, a monthly magazine dedicated to architecture: “‘Recycling,’ he said, ‘I call it downcycling. They smash bricks, they smash everything. What we need is upcycling, where old products are given more value, not less.’"

Since then, a number of books have been written on upcycling and its importance in the context of a greener future. William McDonough’s book, Cradle To Cradle: Remaking The Way We Make Things, is frequently referred to as the most authoritative tome on the subject. And a growing number of designers have drawn from it to create new products from waste. Livia Firth’s gown for the 2011 Oscar awards is one such example: Designer Gary Harvey, known for his upcycled clothes, is reported to have made the dress with 11 outfits he collected from vintage boutiques, thrift and charity shops across south-east London.

Both upcycling and recycling are ways to reuse waste and reduce garbage. But upcycling is different from recycling in the sense that the original product is not destroyed to make new things—so upcycling is more environment friendly.

For Indians, it is not a new concept. Generations had repurposed old clothes into quilts and old saris into frocks and kurtis before consumerism and fast fashion took over.

“People ask us if we are trend-setters and I always say no. Upcycling has always been a part of Indian culture, we are just reviving what seems to have been forgotten over time," says Ayesha Desai, co-founder of Cornucopia Concepts Pvt. Ltd, a firm that upcycles old clothes. The Desai sisters—Ayesha and Manisha—have been repurposing old clothes into utility items like bags, quilts, bedcovers and wall hangings, since 2015.

Several designers and social entrepreneurs are doing similar work across India. Amishi Shah’s The Upcycle Co. has upcycled more than 1,000kg of non-recyclable waste and estimates that it has saved about 1,200kg in carbon emissions since 2014. “There is a huge business opportunity in upcycling," says Devika Krishnan, founder-mentor at the Bengaluru-based Joy At Work which, among other things, makes bags from Tetra Paks and cement sacks. “I keep getting calls from agencies saying they have so many hundred kilos of Tetra Pak waste. But I can’t take up that load because that kind of volume will overwhelm my small team of 12 women."

Ayesha Desai’s workshop is a kaleidoscopic experience. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Ayesha Desai’s workshop is a kaleidoscopic experience. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Patchwork of memories

Whenever the Desai sisters—Ayesha, 38, and Manisha, 36—visit their parents in Belgaum, their father has a standing instruction for their mother: “Mazha kapat please lock kar, ya doghin cha bharosa nahi aahe, kapun taktil majhe sagle kapde (Please keep my cupboard locked, I don’t trust these two girls, they’ll chop up all my clothes)."

He is not wrong. The two sisters have given the scissor treatment to every item of clothing they could lay their hands on at home—only his clothes have stayed unscathed.

The Desai sisters started their venture from home, before extending it to friends and neighbours. In February, they registered Cornucopia Concepts Pvt. Ltd as a non-governmental organization. Ayesha works from a garage-turned-workshop in her Gurugram flat, near Delhi, while Manisha works from her apartment workshop in Pune.

The Desai sisters started their venture from home, before extending it to friends and neighbours.

Walking through Ayesha’s workshop is a kaleidoscopic experience. Apart from some basic furniture and a couple of sewing machines, there are clothes everywhere—packed in boxes, patched into pieces, stacked neatly on shelves and strewn all around; it is almost chaotic, until one begins to understand the patterns and layers. I also spot a beer bottle, sliced in half, sitting on a table in one corner, as if awaiting instructions for its second life.

“We are trying to experiment with glass," explains Ayesha, “trying to make water glasses out of them." Everything in the room is repurposed, she says, including the furniture.

“When we started repurposing old clothes, we thought it would be a good entry point to engage people on discussions related to consumption and reuse," says Manisha on email. “At Cornucopia, we encourage people to try and extend the life cycle of clothes that they don’t want to part with."

Emotions always run high at the workshops, says Ayesha. Once, a friend opened her late father’s wardrobe for them; it had formal shirts accumulated over 45 years of corporate life. “Manisha and I thought for over a month before cutting the shirts," recalls Ayesha. They ended up making two quilts which the friend’s mother gave to her two daughters. “Now we have hundreds of his ties to work with and we are thinking of what we can do with them."

The sisters, born in Mumbai, grew up in Belgaum. Ayesha moved to Pune, Mumbai and then New York for master’s in psychology (2003-05); Manisha studied history at the Sophia College for Women, Mumbai, and pursued a master’s in social work from the College of Social Work, Nirmala Niketan (2004-06).

Manisha Desai.
Manisha Desai.

The sisters have been social workers for over a decade, working with various organizations. While Ayesha has worked in Mumbai, Bengaluru, Gurugram, New York, Los Angeles and San Francisco on issues related to community health, substance abuse and education, Manisha has worked on issues related to trafficking, rural development, waste-pickers, waste management, content writing and community outreach.

They stayed in so many different places, and with so many roommates, that clothes always got mixed up and some of their friends’ clothes landed in their wardrobes back home.

It was during a spring-cleaning session some eight years ago that they discovered these old clothes—a pair of jeans belonging to a good friend, the T-shirt of an ex. “They made us smile," says Ayesha. “We didn’t want to part with them but couldn’t keep them either. That, I guess, was the start of our venture."

Today, with the help of six people across the two cities, the sisters make 50-60 pieces on an average every month, with bulk orders coming every once in a while. “The plan is to engage women’s organizations that provide livelihood opportunities to women in need of such orders," says Manisha. “In January 2017, we partnered with the Vidya Usha Silai Center in Munirka, New Delhi, to create 40 bedcovers for the Wildernest Nature Resort in Goa."

They take orders through social media as well as their website and on phone from all over India and abroad. Once the material reaches either Pune or Delhi, design templates are made. “Many of these designs have been inspired by the drawings of Kaanan, Manisha’s five-year-old daughter, who feels sad if her contribution is not acknowledged," says Ayesha, smiling. Their bedcovers range from Rs3,500-8,000 depending on the intricacy of the work.

Whatever scraps of clothes they are left with are used either in the stuffing for dog beds that they make or sent to SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit in Pune, where they are recycled and used for dhurries.

Ayesha displays her latest creation, a bedcover which features bits of old kurtas, bedcovers and dresses of the two sisters. “It’s like a journey through our teenage, adulthood and motherhood years, all in one piece of fabric," says Ayesha.

Neerja Palisetty started Sutrakaar Creations in Jaipur almost a year ago as a platform to encourage experimental weaving. Photographs by Padam Sherman

No paper trail

Neerja Palisetty comes from a family of weavers in Ponduru in Andhra Pradesh. The census town is known for the finest Khadi and cotton weaves. Growing up, she had always seen a loom in the house, she says. It is not surprising then that she wove her first piece of yarn when she was still a teenager. “I was in class VII or VIII," recalls Palisetty, 43, “when I first wove a yarn from jute and cotton. I made a small pencil pouch as part of a school project."

She started Sutrakaar Creations in Jaipur almost a year ago as a platform to encourage experimental weaving. “The concept is sustainable design and we try to use unconventional material," says Palisetty over the phone from Jaipur. “I go beyond yarn and use paper for weaving."

Waste paper is cut into strips of 2-4mm, twisted and handspun over the charkha to make thread-like strings using adhesive, and used as weft. The warp is either of cotton or Ahimsa silk, both mostly recycled industrial waste.

Palisetty says the products consist of at least 80% upcycled waste.

Sutrakaar makes fashion accessories like pouches and handbags, home decor pieces like lampshades and room dividers, and gifting items like photo-frames and diary covers. The prices range from Rs850 for a simple diary cover to about Rs10,000 for an intricate lampshade. It takes at least one day to set the loom for different products after the design is fixed. Once set, the loom can make about 10 pieces of yarn a day with the same patterns and colour combinations.

After graduating from the Maharaja Sayajirao University of Baroda in clothing and textiles (1992-95), Palisetty worked with her father, who has been a textile designer, and other designers. She also worked with export houses in Coimbatore as a merchandiser and taught textile design and weaving at the Pearl Academy in Jaipur before starting Sutrakaar.

Palisetty says she has always been fascinated by the art and technique of paper-weaving. “There are references to paper-weaving in Japanese legends. The technique is fantastic and I wanted to emulate it in the Indian context, promoting Indian traditions and creating livelihood opportunities for weavers," she says.

Palisetty says the products consist of at least 80% upcycled waste.
Palisetty says the products consist of at least 80% upcycled waste.

Palisetty currently has one master weaver and four looms—two big pedal looms and two smaller ones—at her studio in Jaipur. Cutting and trimming are done by a group of housewives; there are five currently. “I get more weavers as and when I need,"says Palisetty.

Most of her raw material comes from paper export houses in the city and kabadiwalas (scrap dealers). She takes customized orders over Facebook and, a peer-to-peer online marketplace, and sells at exhibitions. One such exhibition was The Forest Of Forgotten Stories, curated by Surya and Ritu Singh of Wolf, the Jaipur-based design space that promotes arts and crafts, to coincide with the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. The Singhs are upcyclers themselves, using paper, metal and other scrap to make lamps, installations, etc.

“I am still exploring what else people like or would want from Sutrakaar," says Palisetty. “Marketing is the next focus area for me."

Off the record

Amishi Shah started upcycling as a hobby in 2013. A year later, she started The Upcycle Co., which has reused more than 1,000kg of non-recyclable waste since.

That’s quite a bit, considering that the company started as a small DIY project
in Mumbai.

“I started experimenting with upcycling after work hours. I would upcycle any waste that I found and convert it into usable things. When people began buying some of my pieces at local exhibitions, I realized that I could actually convert waste into a profitable yet socially conscious business," says Shah, 26, over the phone from Mumbai. “I quit my job as a corporate brand manager and began work on The Upcycle Co. full-time."

One of the first products, she remembers, was made with glass. “It was a wall clock made from a rum bottle for an army officer," she says. “He was posted at the LoC (Line of Control) when I shipped the clock to his home in Chandigarh.

“A few months later, he sent me photographs of the clock he had taken with him to the base camp. That really moved me," she says.

The Upcycle Co. works with waste that is headed to landfills, mainly vinyl records that are made from PVC and CDs, and makes quirky products, such as clocks, coasters and other wall decor items. The team of five in Mumbai procures raw material mostly from “raddiwalas (scrap dealers) and through direct donations", says Shah.

The company makes 2,000-2,500 products on an average every month. Priced at an average of Rs700, these are sold across India through more than 20 e-commerce platforms (such as Love This Stuff, Pepperfry, Etsy), physical stores (such as Remade In India, Bengaluru, and The Hoozinc Store, Hyderabad) and exhibitions (like The Lil Flea, Mumbai).

Shah has a BCom degree in financial markets from the University of Mumbai and an MSc (2012-13) in international management from the University of Bath School of Management. It was during her stay in the UK that she got interested in upcycling.

“I had elective core entrepreneurship as one of my courses during my master’s. There was a professor who was extremely inclined towards social entrepreneurship," recalls Shah. “He used to invite such people for interaction with students. That is when I got excited about it. It was fascinating to see people working with waste and making the business profitable."

So it was not surprising that she started experimenting with different kinds of waste after her return to India. What she realized is that there were few social entrepreneurs in India in this field at the time. “There were business houses and then there were NGOs. There was nothing in between. That is the gap I wanted to plug," she says.

One of the most challenging projects was to design the furniture for The Bar Terminal in Fort, Mumbai, in 2015. “Commercial spaces are much more difficult than residential spaces," says Shah. “They are less forgiving. We were asked to come up with furniture made with waste. The mandate was that every table had to have a different pattern and material but the dimensions had to be the same."

The Upcycle Co. has come a long way but it still has a long way to go. “We want to upcycle 500 tonnes of waste in the next two years," says Shah.

Anu Tandon Vieira. Photo: Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

Hot seats

I thought of The Retyrement Plan towards the end of 2011 and the first products came out in 2012," says Anu Tandon Vieira, 53, over the phone from Mumbai.

Today, with the help of at least six regular artisans, Vieira makes about 100 pieces of furniture per month from discarded tyres, textile and plastic waste and cane. They range from ottomans, pouffes, chairs, tables and sofas to swings, hammocks and pods that look like the nest of a weaver bird, and are priced from Rs3,500 for a small pouffe to Rs15,000-18,000 for a swing.

Tyres are generally discarded after a small amount of wear and tear. They are either burnt for fuel or dumped into landfills, both environmental hazards since tyres don’t disintegrate. “At The Retyrement Plan, we try to turn that longevity, a big negative, into a positive," says Vieira.

She sources old tyres from a couple of auto shops, chindi (textile scrap) from Gujarat and Rajasthan, and pieces of discarded plastic packaging material from factories. Over the years, she has taken part in trade fairs like The India Story, Kolkata, in 2015 and 2016; the exhibition India Design ID, Delhi, in 2015, where the project was picked for the Godrej DesignLab; and the London Design Festival in 2016, to name a few.

A graduate in sculpture from the College of Art, Delhi (1981-85), with a postgraduate degree in textiles from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad (1985-89), Vieira did a lot of freelancing till she got married and moved to Mumbai in 1991. In Bollywood city, she worked with a large export house, did art and costume designing for movies, including two Sai Paranjpye films, and taught at an architecture school before starting The Retyrement Plan.

It all started with introspection during a trip to Greece, Vieira recalls.

“Six years ago, when I was heading towards my 50s, I started asking myself a question. ‘I have been a designer for 30 years. Of all the designs I created and the people I worked with, what makes the most sense to me?’"

She realized that working with craftsmen, seeing a design evolve in front of her eyes, was the most fulfilling. But she didn’t know how to go about it.

Around the same time, she was on a holiday on the tiny island of Sifnos in Greece, where she met a woman weaving yarn on a handloom from a seat where she had a 360-degree view of the sea. “This woman was an accountant in the US and she returned to her hometown after retirement. She looked so happy in that moment. That is when I started thinking about my own retirement plan," says Vieira.

On a visit to NID (where she is still part of the visiting faculty) soon after this vacation, she discovered chindi—textile scrap that is recycled and twisted into ropes that make for colourful weaving material. A plan was taking shape.

When she returned to Mumbai, a product-designer friend offered an empty space near the Mazgaon dock. “Things were falling into place. I had a space and material. I needed to decide what next."

She approached cane-weavers in her neighbourhood and one of them eventually agreed to experiment with bamboo and chindi. “The design evolved into something like a pouffe which also reminded me of tyres. And two shops down the line, there was a mechanic who aligned tyres," she says.

It was all coming together. “For a framework of that strength, be it in metal or cane, you would end up paying something like Rs5,000-6,000, but here we got the frame (made from old tyres and cane) for a fraction of that cost," says Vieira.

“What you see in a city like Mumbai is that a lot of raw material which is perfect is discarded because people don’t know what to do with it," says Vieira. “The remains of the sheet from which bindis are cut are so beautiful and vibrant. Try binding notebooks or make lampshades with them, the perforations will give a lovely pattern and texture."

Vieira has a karkhana (workshop) in Goregaon. If you visit the workshop and like something, you can buy it. Customers generally get in touch with her over Facebook, the internet or phone. “Most of the pieces," says Vieira, “are made to order. I have a tie-up with about 15 design stores across India (across Chennai, Bengaluru, Puducherry, Mumbai, Ahmedabad, Hyderabad and Pune, in stores like Kamala, the Crafts Council store, Studio Ebony, Purple Turtles, Rimagined, and the Jaya He museum at the Mumbai international airport), where I send my stuff. We also work with architects. Right now, I am doing furniture for an upcoming restaurant, Jamjar Diner, in Bandra."

Photographs by Abhishek BA/Mint

Bagful of dreams

The biggest problem in upcycling waste is that people don’t appreciate the skill and labour involved in making beautiful objects, says Devika Krishnan, founder-mentor at Joy At Work, an enterprise for women, over the phone from Bengaluru. That, and the fact that you need to keep your premises clean, because in no time “it starts looking like a garbage dump itself".

Recently, Krishnan recalls, a woman visited her Whitefield workshop and liked a necklace. When she was told that the piece was made of scrap from Tetra Pak and clothes and cost Rs400, she was taken aback.

“Arre itna mehenga! Kachre se hi to bana hai, na (So costly. It is made of scrap after all)!" the customer exclaimed. The women at Joy At Work, which started in 2013, tried to explain the cost of labour and skill involved in that one piece, but failed. So they explained the process, gave her the raw material and asked her to make one bead that would go into the necklace. Half an hour later, she got up and bought six pieces for Rs400 each.

Krishnan, 47, works with a group of a dozen women, all wives of migrant workers in the city’s IT hub, making baskets, jewellery, iPad covers, etc., from Tetra Paks, cement sacks and scraps of clothes.

“We only work with low-value solid waste that goes into landfills," says Krishnan. “We don’t touch the waste which has any value in the kabadi market."

The biggest problem in upcycling waste is that people don’t appreciate the skill and labour involved in making beautiful objects, says Devika Krishnan.

Krishnan has been working in what she calls the “livelihood" sector since 1993, when she graduated in ceramic design from the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad. She has worked with the non-profits Dastkar and Good Earth. She is still associated with Dastkar as a product designer and skills trainer. Though she worked purely as a product designer in the initial phase of her career, Krishnan’s work for the best part of the last decade has involved working with women from rural or poor urban households and helping them become financially independent. It was during one such project with Dastkar Ranthambhore, in one of the villages near the Ranthambore National Park in Rajasthan, that she discovered Tetra Pak as raw material. And that’s where her Tetra Pak baskets were first made, in 2009.

After returning to Bengaluru, she started the project anu Life in the Janakiram Layout slum in 2010.

“We look around at what we have and things just evolve from there," says Krishnan. “One of the women at anu Life was married to a person who worked in the construction business, so we now had access to cement bags. We had some embroidery work and I had an iPad. So the iPad cover from cement sacks happened just like that.

“When the women at anu did business worth Rs14 lakh in 2012, I thought they were good enough to be on their own," Krishnan says.

Devika Krishnan works with a group of a dozen women, all wives of migrant workers in the city’s IT hub, making baskets, jewellery, iPad covers, etc., from Tetra Paks, cement sacks and scraps of clothes.

In 2013, she started Joy At Work from a room in Nallurahalli rented by a friend. Today, the women at Joy At Work make around 300 products a month on an average and earn Rs1,200-8,000 a month. Priced from Rs30 for a pair of earrings to about Rs2,000 for a floor mat, their products are sold across India through the online store Rimagined, which also has a stand-alone shop in Whitefield, Bengaluru.

“We take very small individual orders. There are agencies outside Bengaluru that have got in touch and said they have X amount of Tetra Pak and asked if we could turn these into products. It is a fantastic business opportunity but it will completely overwhelm my team," says Krishnan. So customized orders are taken on a case-to-case basis.

By the end of this year, the women at Joy At Work should be skilled enough to handle Joy At Work independently, she says. “I will be able to move on to a new project."

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