The waste-warriors pioneering new ways to solve the plastic problem

23 Apr 2018

To mark Earth Day on 22 April, Xynteo's Mahima Sukhdev and Aparna Veerarouthu share their work on the Plastic Maker Hubs and their passion for combatting plastic waste. The growth of plastic waste is threatening our oceans, marine life, human health, beaches and landscapes. Encouragingly, the world is now taking serious steps to resolve the problem, and, at the United Nations Environment Assembly in December 2017 in Nairobi, more than 200 states passed a resolution to end plastic waste in our oceans. With this year's Earth Day dedicated to helping to end plastic waste, we caught up with Mahima and Aparna to hear more about their work on Plastic Maker Hubs. Achieving 'better plastic` Plastic Maker Hubs is a series of hubs/workshops where waste pickers convert plastic waste into a range of design products such as notebooks, décor, and furniture. The initiative is a result of the Leadership Vanguard programme's incubation process, which sees top leadership talent from global organisations collaborate to find new ways to solve humanity's biggest problems.

jumping

At the heart of the Hubs is the wish to achieve 'better plastic'. "The main challenge with plastic is that while it is a durable, sturdy material which is great for so many purposes, we use plastic in a disposable way. And this is only because plastic is cheap. Plastic has all these hidden social and environmental costs that we don't take into account when we price it. Shifting our perception and usage of plastic is at the core of Plastic Maker Hubs' purpose," says Mahima, who is a Principal at Xynteo and also Director of Methods and Tools. "The price of plastic needs to change so that it reflects the actual social and environmental costs. We can change price through taxation to incorporate externalities, or we can change price through brand, which involves increasing the price of plastic through desirability and design. This is exactly what Plastic Maker Hubs is trying to do," she says. Both Aparna and Mahima share a personal passion for ending the plastic problem.

Aparna

Aparna, who project manages Plastic Maker Hubs, became interested in solving the plastic waste problem due to her passion for problem solving and innovation. "My brain goes into problem-solving mode whenever I see a problem, and plastic waste is such a vast and complex issue. Plastic waste has been around for so long and exists in such huge quantities. When Mahima introduced the idea of the Plastic Maker Hubs to me, this felt like my calling," she says. Mahima, on the other hand, initially started worrying about the plastic problem because of her interest in wildlife. I'm a scuba diver, and it broke my heart to see plastic - the ugly footprint of mankind - in the oceans, which are otherwise some of the most pristine and remote parts of our earth," says Mahima. Empowering the waste pickers Aparna highlights that at the core of Plastic Maker Hubs is the waste pickers. "We imagine the waste picker as a micro entrepreneur, and we eventually want them to run the hubs. We envision them developing new skills and confidence they can use in the hubs or transition into other occupations, which hopefully will translate into higher, more stable income streams in their communities," says Aparna. "We want to empower these waste warriors. In a place like India, which lacks infrastructure for waste management, the waste pickers are really central to any solution to the waste challenge," Mahima adds.

wastepickers

Waste pickers in India are often women, and sometimes unfortunately children who belong to waste picker communities and have not had the opportunity to learn other skills. Mahima and Aparna both agree on the long-term vision for Plastic Maker Hubs. "We want Plastic Maker Hubs to provide consumers with the option to buy plastic that is better for the environment and supports the livelihood of the people that works with it. We want to create a model for better plastic that can be implemented anywhere in the world", says Mahima. Both plastic champions believe that we need a new narrative for plastic: "The reality is that there is so much plastic and we don't have a clear solution to it," says Aparna. Mahima adds: "Unlike climate, where we have achieved a general consensus on the 2-degree target, we don't have such a narrative on what we want the future of plastic to look like." Plastic Maker Hubs is currently in a transition process – the team is in the process of setting up Plastic Maker Hubs as an independent enterprise, initially managed by Deepesh Pancholi, who is a talented designer who has spent the 9 months working on Plastic Maker Hubs with Aparna, Mahima, and Truus Huisman (the Unilever champion from the Leadership Vanguard programme). If you're interested in finding out more contact Mahima at mas@xynteo.com This is the fourth instalment of #XynteoLife, a monthly series which showcases a member of our team. Find the March story here.