India’s Waste Tech start-ups are driving sweeping change

By Madhushree BN and Poorvaja Arun Kumar

While the environmental and health impacts of improper waste management is easily understood, the cost of the efforts to manage the increasing volumes of waste effectively is on the lower rung of the priority ladder. Despite allocating 20-25% of a municipality’s budget (for handling up to 75–80% of waste collection in a city) towards waste management[1], only a measly 22–28% of the waste is processed and treated[2]. The rest ends up in landfills where the waste is either burnt in the open or left to degrade slowly, inevitably emitting greenhouse gases. Despite significant efforts on their part, the municipalities are burdened with a fragmented ecosystem, lack of source traceability, and widespread downcycling rather than upcycling.

These systemic challenges are further exacerbated by urbanisation and population growth. However, these challenges present an opportunity, waiting to be realised by entrepreneurs who can turn waste into wealth. Diversity in waste composition and the enormous quantity generated daily makes decentralised local solutions a viable option. Entrepreneurial solutions at local levels are built complementary to the existing government infrastructure, increasing efficiency and reducing costs. These also create new markets and green jobs for the informal waste pickers. Start-ups are well-placed to facilitate value recovery from waste while creating significant social, environmental and economic impact.

In this sector, unmixed waste-volume aggregation is the cornerstone of developing a financially sustainable and scalable solution. According to a study by the MacArthur Foundation, every metric ton of used clothing collected could generate revenue that is almost double the cost of collection and sorting. Innovations in this space optimize for volumes and frequency in collection, creating backward linkages with waste generators, and forward linkages with recyclers and value recovery and value creation vendors. The value recovery and creation segment is characterised by deep science and technology-driven innovations which have the ability to create new markets. But this can only exist when a steady reverse supply chain has been built for different waste streams. Entrepreneurial models along the entire waste value chain hold potential to create safe and stable jobs for the estimated 4 million informal waste pickers in India. The competitive landscape and impact-driven nature of the startup ecosystem translates to building a safe, fair and comfortable work environment. The benefits of a fair and secure job support the informal waste pickers with access to insurance, education, and basic services such as water and sanitation. Science and technology innovations in specialised waste streams build climate resiliency and new markets.

Investments in waste-management innovations create opportunities for micro-entrepreneurship as observed in the case of Hasiru Dala Innovations. Here the waste pickers, supported by the organisation, have gone on to run their own franchisees. Phool creates charcoal-free incense sticks/cones and biodegradable leather from discarded temple flower waste. They employ women previously engaged in manual scavenging as part of their operations and train them to develop these products from flower waste. Considered holy in India, tons of flowers from temples are dumped into water bodies, leaving them polluted.

Loopworm creates high protein animal feed for the pet and poultry industry by farming black soldier flies to turn food waste into insect feed. They rely on the support of the waste pickers for collection and have also created stable income opportunities for individuals from the informal sector by training them to work at their processing unit. Apart from capturing the economic value of waste, such business models drive positive outcomes centred around stable income for the workers, which has spill over effects such as access to social security systems, education and sanitation. These startups capture the essence of a regenerative circular economy focussing on social, environmental and economic growth.

The world’s population continues to increase and is projected to hit almost 10 billion by 2050[3]. The accelerated pace of global consumption means dealing with the dramatically increased volume of waste. But these waste dumps are not an insurmountable mountain. Entrepreneurship is born to address the systemic challenges and go in lockstep with the existing ecosystem. According to a study of the waste management and processing sector in Southeast Asia, the economic cost of uncollected waste can be nearly five times as high as what it would take to properly manage the waste from the onset[4]. The financially fraught municipalities stand to gain immensely in savings and efficiency by building an enabling ecosystem that encourages entrepreneurs to develop business models to plug the gap.

At Social Alpha we integrate the larger innovation, incubation, and investment ecosystems to support entrepreneurs who are on a mission to solve some of the most complex problems of poverty and development and improve quality of life for the underserved. We search for entrepreneurs and innovators who have a strong focus on addressing India’s major development challenges and remain engaged with them throughout their product lifecycle stages. Social Alpha architecture includes a number of innovation centres, accelerators, incubation labs and seed funds.

As a part of Saamuhika Shakti, a Collective Impact initiative by H&M Foundation in India, Social Alpha in December 2020 launched Techtonic: Innovations in Waste Management – a nationwide call for applications to identify entrepreneurs and innovators who can create stable income opportunities for the informal waste pickers. Techtonic and the subsequent Accelerator is envisioned to drive the uptake of scalable innovations and technologies to accelerate waste management in Bangalore and India, and to build income stability for the informal waste pickers. The five winners of the  program Phool, Loopworm, ZeroPlast Labs, Swachha Ecosolutions and MuddleArt  are now a part of our Innovations in Waste Management Accelerator and will be implementing a pilot in Bangalore, integrating the informal waste pickers into their operations.