Every week India's cities produce an amount of waste that would weigh twice the equivalent of the Empire State Building. But while India has struggled with keeping trash off its streets, most areas have a recycling method so well established that it's almost embedded in the culture. Radhiwallas, or recycle collectors, visit homes regularly, collecting recyclable materials for a small price and in turn, selling the items to make a meager living. Although the system works, it's a bit desultory.
That's where Parag Gupta says his social enterprise, Waste Ventures, comes in. It is working to build a model in waste management that empowers the waste pickers, creates a revenue stream, and leaves a positive footprint on the environment. This past month, Waste Ventures was selected by the World Wildlife Fund as one of its worldwide "50 Green Game Changers."
Gupta was working as associate director at the Schwab Foundation for Social Enterprise before he took the leap to become an enterpreneur himself. So, when I asked Gupta, of all the issues that he could have tackled, what allured him to trash, he laughed and then responded, "Trash is in many ways primary. It's fundamental to health, sanitation, environment, income, and more. Its impact is multiplying."
In fact, multiplying is a good word to describe Waste Ventures itself. The emphasis is on creating several layers of impact that go beyond just lifting waste pickers out of poverty. The model, is composed of two parts, a non-profit arm and a for-profit arm. First, it's focusing on developing waste picker corporations, which are owned and operated by the waste pickers themselves. Next, Waste Ventures comes in and offers these companies training in processing waste, transforming the organic matter into bio-fertilizer, which is sold to rural farms. Recyclables will be separated and sold as well.
As a result, the corporations qualify for GHG emission reductions, Gupta explains, enabling the waste picker corporations to earn carbon credits. By taking a minority stake in the corporations, Gupta says that his business is able to give these communities access global carbon markets, which would be beyond their reach otherwise, help streamline their operations, and generate revenue to keep themselves going.
The result? Diversified sources of income for the waste pickers, positive impact on the environment, and no more piles of trash clogging streets.
Currently, Gupta has been focusing on India's smaller communities. The first of the corporations was set up in Osmanabad, situated in southern Maharashtra and with a population of 1.6 million (small by Indian standards). The process has been a bit bumpy, with challenges arising, and support from municipal governments wavering. But, Gupta, the son of Indian-Americans, is familiar with the byzantine bureaucracy involved in starting a business in India, he says, and it's not going to deter him from finding supportive local governments who want to pioneer this approach. In addition, he has board support from some of the most noted luminaries of social enterprise, including Harish Hande of SELCO, the renowned Indian solar social enterprise, Pamela Hartigan, Executive Director of the Skoll Centre at Oxford’s Said Business School, and Geoff Davis, former CEO of microfinance accelerator Unitus.
What's next for Waste Ventures? The rest of the developing world.
"Waste management in much of the developing world has been ineffective and mismanaged," Gupta says. "There's also no sustainable model. So, we're starting in India but we want to expand outwards reaching communities across Asia, Africa, South America."