How products fashioned from waste are catching the fancy of consumers today

A handbag bag made by Inai crafts using upcycled leather as base material (left); 'I was a Saree' fashions old saris to make trendy shoes
Mending, repairing, reusing, and rarely discarding – these practices were characteristic of the Indian ethos and lifestyle, until they got lost somewhere along the way. Post liberalisation, with the rise in disposable incomes, the new mantra that began dominating the yuppie mindset was “use and dump”. But not any more. We've come a full circle as the planet can’t afford indulgences and it’s time to go back to the basics and adopt sustainable living by recycling and upcycling products.  

In fact, recycling is now big business, with entrepreneurs fashioning products out of everything from discarded marble, to waste plastic, to old newspapers, and what have you. "Waste is a responsibility and waste is a resource," says Yashas Bhand, CEO and Co-founder of Yasasu EMS Pvt. Ltd, a waste to energy company that is working with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi to collect organic waste and convert it into electricity and manure. 

Waste being heterogeneous in nature, requires different technologies for treating its different components by either recycling, reusing or upcycling to a new, value-added by-product. Yasasu EMS  has five plants for waste conversion in Delhi. Technology is well established and policy is also favouring them. Says Bhand, “In India, the government's initiative to reduce oil dependence, coupled with the emergence  of biogas a potential alternative, should give a big boost to our business.”

The packaging industry is already opting for alternative packaging material, while the textile sector is working with recycled plastic and fibres. According to Akanksha Kaila Akashi, founder of REFASH, a multi-brand retail concept that sells upcycled products online and offline, “Upcycling is need of the hour and is the creative reuse of discarded products and material that had reached the end of life cycle, and the process of transforming them into new products of higher value.” While recycling is the process of reducing a product to its raw material form and then creating a new product out of it, upcycling is the process of creatively making something new and of better value, from an existing product. 

Gujarat-based RaasLeela makes 100 per cent handstitched products using the smallest remnants from their atelier and leftovers from stores.

For instance, in the world of art, junk art is being celebrated today like never before- something evident from the success of the New Delhi’s Waste to Wonder Park, and the metal scrap sculptures adorning various parts of our cities such as Dwarka in Delhi, and Nariman Point and Worli in Mumbai. For artist Arzan Khambatta, best known for artworks upcycled from metal scrap such as the big Rhino at Nariman Point or INS Vikrant monument created from its waste on the traffic island at Colaba, “These places come to be recognized by what I call ‘scraptures’ on display and overtime these tend to become landmarks. This is a great way to engaging the common man with art and transmit the message of reuse and recycle.” For Khambatta, who started out at age 17, scouting streets, garages, construction sites for scrap metal, collecting and welding them into pieces of art, and is a celebrated artist today, “Prices are not at all dependent upon metal used and it’s a misconception that scrap will be cheap. Sourcing of scrap is always tough and often you may not get the sizes and shapes you may want in scrap – one needs to painstakingly understand every piece and then integrate it into a composite whole.” A scrap sculpture would range anything from 25,000 to 50,000 to a few lakhs for a branded player like him.

A huge opportunity lies in segment of stationery. For a brand The Second Life, discarded newspapers from house hold and direct printing press (which are unused) form the base for their block printed gift wrapping papers, paper bags, notebook covers and paper mache products. Says spokesperson Raahul Khadaliya, “Our block printed newspapers narrate the best story and we ask our customers to use no plastic tape while packing which makes it reusable and often comes back to the same person who used it first. The price range of our products start from 85 and goes up to 2000.  Our prices are usually higher in price than regularly available machine made and low impact products.” They also use discarded tyre tubes for products like travelogues, notebooks, passport holders, card holders, coin pouches, etc.  

Others in upcycling include 'I was a Saree', founded by Stefano Funari, which uses old saris as raw material to make one-of-a-kind kimonos, jackets and shoes. Inai crafts uses upcycled leather from Italy and India, as a base material for creating handmade fashion-forward leather products by Indian artisans in their Chennai based workshop. Iro Iro is a zero-waste label from Jaipur that uses post-industrial wastage offcuts of cotton, linen, and denim along with Aakh—an indigenous fibre from Rajasthan, which requires no water to grow, to fashion versatile contemporary clothing. Since the inception of the brand, it has upcycled 1,500 kg of scrap. RaasLeela procures rejected and damaged fabrics from weavers, yardage ends from suppliers, cutting waste and leftover fabrics from other production houses, and spokesperson Hetal Shrivastav says, “we ensure that the material and skills are used and nothing as small as 1x1 inch fabric piece is wasted.” Vadodra based Swavlambi creates multifunctional bags and accessories out of fabric waste. Other brands include If you slow and Patch over Patch.

Denim scraps are also being used to make bags. Recently Numero Uno collaborated with designer Anurag Gupta, wherein he used old stocks of jeans to create new denim jackets, skirts, bags and shirts. 

The task is not without its challenges. For instance sourcing is a big issue. In India, there is a huge gap between waste collection and its segregation, due to which, quite often, the process of procuring raw materials becomes one of the most time consuming exercise in the entire process of making upcycled items. The price also varies according to the source of the raw material.

Finally, who invests in these products? There is a growing set of people demanding eco-friendly products and that is where the touch point is. Many brands are trying to build their customer base by providing detailed information on how their products are made and the impact they create. “Upcycling isn't a new concept in India. It has been present in our households for generations. Only the term is new,” says Akanksha Kaila Akashi. "We are re-looking at waste and designing products that are unique and helping in achieving a circular economy."

A quick look at recyled and upcycled products available in the market
Upcyled/recycled product
Material Used  Price
Apparel Textile waste from factories / clothes discarded by consumers Rs 2,000-10,000
Sarees Old Sarees Rs 1,500-15,000
Jewellery Textile waste / discarded marble combined with precious metals like silver Rs 200-600 for jewellery made with fabric scrap, Rs 3,000-8,000 for ornaments made with various discarded material combined with precious metals
Stationery Discarded tyre tubes or paper mache / textile leftover with recycled paper / old newspapers Rs 100-1,000
Bags Textile leftover / leather leftover Rs 500-2,000 for bags made from textile leftovers, and Rs 1,000-6,000 for those made from leather leftovers
Junk Art, sculptures  Metal scrap, construction surplus Rs 2,000- 25,000 onwards

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