Read, Debate: Engage.

Tryst with trash: converting waste into treasure

September 13, 2022
topic:Sustainable Development
tags:#India, #plastic, #waste, #circular economy, #recycling
by:Sanjana Chawla
BasicShit, a Delhi-based NGO, is not waiting for the government to solve India's swelling plastic problem.

On 1 July, 2022, India imposed a nationwide ban on the manufacturing, import, sale, use and distribution of single-use plastic items. Such plastic has a low utility and high littering value, and is often discarded after one time use. It not only compounds existing pollution, but also increases our carbon footprint - as plastic is often kept out of the recycling and repurposing process

According to a 2017 report by the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce & Industry (FICCI), the average per capita consumption of plastic in India is 11kg, while the global average stands at 28 kg. With an annual production of 3.5 million metric tonnes of plastic waste, and approximately 5.5 million metric tonnes of single-use plastic waste, only a very small amount of waste is reused or recycled. Close to 40 percent of untreated waste ends up at landfill sites to be burned or decomposed. 

As a fast-growing economy, India's plastic consumption has been increasing exponentially. As per the 2019 findings of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), only about 2.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is recycled, about 0.8 million tonnes is burnt, 6.7 million tonnes of plastic waste reaches landfills and as much as 8.5 million tonnes of plastic waste is mismanaged.

OECD has also forecasted that India may surpass Canada in terms of plastic usage and that its consumption is expected to rise 4.5 times by 2050. 

The consumption and disposal of single-use plastic is just as problematic for India, as these plastics are non-biodegradable; instead, they break down into micro-particles which contaminate the environment. These microplastics enter and pollute sources of food and water, and seriously endanger the local population. 

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), single-use plastic greatly impacts marginalised, at-risk communities that have little access to resources and information. UNEP's 2021 report states that plastic pollution and waste do not only contaminate water bodies and marine sources, but also cause deforestation.

It also highlights that women are at greater risk of developing health complications as a result of exposure to plastic products and waste.

Plastic ban not sufficient

UNEP called for governmental and country-level initiatives to contain the spread of plastic pollution and waste. It also emphasised the need to enforce a ban on single-use plastic and promote the reduction, recycling and reuse of plastic.

While India has banned single-use plastic since July, PET bottles and thick plastic bags - those thicker than 120 microns – are not banned yet in the country. 

Initiatives on the community and individual levels are also being encouraged. To curb the risks associated with plastic and in order to promote sustainability, Ashwani Aggarwal is converting waste remains and plastic into usable, eco-friendly products.

Based in Delhi, Aggarwal runs BasicShit, a non-profit initiative, that caters to sanitation and plastic related problems. A collective of architects, artists and scientists - the NGO's members follow an intersectional approach to plastic and sanitation and build sustainable urinals and toilets - often from plastic - for people living on the streets. 

Speaking on the inspiration behind turning plastic into usable products, Aggarwal told FairPlanet, "I always wanted to do something for the society while addressing the issues of environment and pollution."

"Plastic is a big problem in our society and so is lack of clean, hygienic sanitation facilities," he went on. "So with BasicShit I am addressing both these concerns."

Turning plastic waste into products

Aggarwal makes a plethora of products, including chairs, ashtrays, urinals, toilets, birdhouses, doghouses, tables, spitting bowls and even laptop stands - all composed of plastic and household waste. 

"Handling and composition of the materials vary according to projects," he answered when asked about the products' building process and the types of materials he utilises.

"We combine a variety of materials, such as kitchen waste, organic material, disposed plastic, and cigarette buds to make the products.

"From potato and onion peels to soaked rice and even mushrooms - I make products with any and everything!"

Aggarwal uses waste and discarded plastic bottles, plastic bottle caps and wrappers of chips and candies to make environmentally-friendly, portable urinals and chairs. He pointed out that making goods out of trash is not an easy task, and the products have to aesthetically pleasing to attract consumers. 

"The majority of the items make use of discarded bottle caps and bottles as they are a good source of colour," he said. "For instance, the green colour comes from using a waste sprite bottle and black colour [comes] from the remains of an old water tank and tires.

"Different coloured bottle caps add colour to our products, and kitchen foils make them fire resistant and [shiny]."

So far, Aggarwal has recycled over 9,986 kg of waste, which otherwise would have ended up in landfills. 

"From potato and onion peels to soaked rice and even mushrooms - I make products with any and everything!"

Circular economy in the making

By working with used and discarded plastic bottles, the Delhi-based design student said he'd like to continue working towards a circular economy by using, refurbishing and recycling materials and products for as long as he can. 

"We believe in a circular economy and we first start collecting the cigarette buds," he said. "Those buds have a plastic component and we mix it with toothpaste and kitchen foil to mold it into a workable material."

He added that a community of rag-pickers and NGOs collect trash and give it to him so he could convert the "trash into treasure."

His main collaborators are women who collect and segregate scrap. "Our community of activists and eco-conscious people has expanded so much that if we want trash in a particular colour, the people responsible for gathering and accumulating the product do it for us," he said.

Public reception of Aggarwal’s designs and products has been widely positive.

Recently, the team installed a toilet made out of plastic waste in the Pakistani Hindu Refugee Camp in the Majnu Ka Tila area of North Delhi. Girls and  women at the camp were overjoyed with the installment of new toiles, since there had been no functioning ones available at the site. 

The women shared that previously they was no proper place to go to the bathroom, and that the lack of hygiene and cleanliness had often led them to contract infections.

"It is in moments like these that one feels that they have done something significant," Aggarwal said, "something worthy for the society."

Although he’s had his fair share of ups and downs with delayed permissions and a meager workforce, particularly after COVID, still Aggarwal has received substantial support and engagement from the local community. 

His urinals are made of discarded plastic scrap and tires, and are odorless. Expounding on how he created them, Aggarwal mentioned that he used special, all-organic cartridges and components like charcoal, saw dust and gravel, which have been used to mask the smell of urine. 

Aggarwal takes pride in the fact that there is a story and a journey behind the products he creates. And as he develops new designs, his vision of benefitting public spaces continues to take centre stage.

"For a majority of people in society, plastic waste or lack of a urinal might seem a small thing," he said, "but only those who are affected and deprived of such basic amenities can actually realise their importance."

He and his team are continuously researching and experimenting with a variety of materials in order to scale the process of remolding and repurposing existing items.

Image by Claudio Schwarz.

Article written by:
Sanjana Chawla 2
Sanjana Chawla
Embed from Getty Images
Close to 40 percent of India's untreated waste ends up at landfill sites to be burned or decomposed. 
© Money Sharma
Embed from Getty Images
"For a majority of people in society, plastic waste or lack of a urinal might seem a small thing, but only those who are affected and deprived of such basic amenities can actually realise their importance."
© Dominique Faget
Call to Action
An unusual way to tackle India's plastic crisis
Support now