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Costly beauty: when flowers become a source of pollution

February 04, 2023
tags:#India, #Delhi, #floral waste, #water pollution, #recycling, #women's rights
by:Sanjana Chawla
A Delhi-based enterprise is finding sustainable methods to tackle the country's floral waste crisis while empowering female scrap-pickers.

Flowers are a common feature in Indian celebrations, rituals and festivities, and hold great significance, especially among religious devotees. To them, flowers symbolise purity, peace, auspiciousness and joy. But they have also become an environmental menace and contribute to a swelling waste crisis. 

According to a 2016 research, roughly eight million tonnes of discarded flowers are dumped into rivers and other water bodies in India each year. This waste does not only choke and pollute rivers and the organisms living in them, but also contaminates the water with pesticides and chemical fertilizers used Ito grow the flowers.

Floral remains also clog sewage systems and penetrate the soil, causing severe degradation and resource depletion.

"According to some estimates, India is one of the most significant and largest producers of flowers in the world, and the floral industry is a significant contributor to the country's economy" Qasim Raza, a social worker and strategic advisor at the Okhla Community Forum in Delhi, told FairPlanet.

He warned, however, that waste generated from this industry can pose a serious environmental and social threat, because flowers and related products are not disposed of properly they can end up in dumpsites, landfills or waterways. 

"In addition, the production and trade of flowers and related products can also have social impacts such as poor working conditions and adverse effects on local communities," he added.

Composting and recycling

According to Raza, the establishment of proper waste management and composting stations across the country will help reduce the negative impacts of floral waste.

He added, "Composting and recycling programmes can help to repurpose or reuse floral waste and support more sustainable and responsible flower production and consumption."

One such entity operating on the principle of reusing, recycling, reducing, repairing and repurposing flowers is Gulmeher, a socially-conscious company working year-round to sustainably create products such as natural Holi colors, greeting cards, rakhis and candles while empowering women. 

The company is based in Ghazipur, one of the oldest landfills in Delhi and one of the 50 largest landfills in the world. Gulmeher translates to "blessings of the flowers," and works on the improvement of livelihoods and quality of life while generating income for female former waste-pickers.

Kamla Joshi, a manager at Gulmeher, told FairPlanet that the organisation trains women to make stationery products from waste flowers and paper.

"We aim to provide customers with handcrafted products while supporting and encouraging skilled women who hand make everything using discarded flower petals arranged together laboriously to breathe life into the designs."

The Gulmeher team uses discarded paper, fabric, and floral waste to create marketable products, including recycled hand-pressed papers and real-pressed flowers to make calendars.

They procure floral waste from the neighbouring wholesale flower market and vegetables from the adjoining wholesale vegetable market. Joshi said the recycled and handmade paper is sourced from ethical vendors and scrap paper sellers, and that their team wants to empower waste pickers and their families. 

A majority of women working at Gulmeher were ragpickers and scrap dealers working under deplorable conditions, said Joshi.

She added, "The organisation has not only given them an alternate source of employment and income generation, but has also empowered them and made them self-sufficient. These women are now earning by making the products and are leading comparatively healthier and better lives."

One of the many workers at Gulmeher is Shabana. Once a ragpicker, Shabana (30) now says she works "respectably" and creates beautiful products while her mother continues to pick and sell scrap.

"Gulmeher has created new livelihood opportunities for me and women like me as it has provided us with a self-sustainable, independent, and dignified life," Shabana told FairPlanet.

In addition to getting paid for the products they create, Shabana and other female waste-pickers are also shareholders in the company and earn profits.

But this work is anything but easy. Since the women working at Gulmeher were previously ragpickers and scrap pickers, they are made to go through intensive training sessions.

"The work that our team does requires basic art  and craft skills and visual and aesthetic sense," Joshi shared. "Training women in the required art takes a lot of time and capital. Since all of our work is done using hands, we have to help the women with the delicate handwork as well."

Image by jasleen_kaur.

Article written by:
Sanjana Chawla 2
Sanjana Chawla
Embed from Getty Images
Flowers have become an environmental menace and contribute to a growing waste problem.
Embed from Getty Images
According to a 2016 research, about eight million tonnes of floral waste are dumped into rivers and other water bodies in India each year.
Embed from Getty Images
Gulmeher utilises floral waste and remains to create products such as natural Holi colors, greeting cards, rakhis, and candles.
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