Landfills, and birds hovering over them in a circle to catch the prey; stinking sites; and the sight of wastes wasting the quality of our life, is quite common in various parts of India. Letting the wastes create a mess isn’t sensible. Finding a solution is essential.
Of the huge dump of waste, we can set aside those which can be reused to recreate something useful, and eco-friendly. The trash quotient includes different kinds of materials, we can classify them into two sets of broad categories: Biodegradable and Non biodegradable and Reusable or Recyclable or Non Recyclable/ Reusable. We can make bottle planters, stationery stand, alluring chandelier or something else out of plastic bottles to have less waste footprint. Same thing we can follow with other such recyclable or reusable materials.
Shikha Shah has taken this idea of making wastes useful a few steps ahead, from the line where we usually get stuck at while thinking about the same. She follows the principle of “Upcycling”. Through “Scrapshala”, a business venture, she creates and recreates different use-worthy things out of the trash and sell them on online platforms. This way, she is able to balance the waste quotient while generating employment options.
“…finding a solution for waste that could be practiced at the consumer level by any age group was exciting”, she hinted at the idea underlying her venture. When we asked her about the factors that led her to the making of Scrapshala, she briefly narrated all the circumstances that collectively led her to do this.
“Since childhood, I had seen my mother, Madhu Shah of being conscious as a consumer and re-innovating junk/ unused things into useful things. She was very strict in making us practice to waste least. Travelling to various places in India and internet exposed me to the professional world of Upcycling. “Upcycling” indicates at reusing things for a longer time, which was traditionally practiced in India before the machine age came into the picture. Several people being able to adopt zero-waste lifestyle, was also a push to explore upcycling.
Landfill and recycling, the only solutions for waste management in India, were labour, money and energy intensive. Landfills were filled beyond capacity in most cities and recycling lacked infrastructure in most cities, making it inaccessible to the consumers to do anything about waste.
The simplicity and ease of practicing the idea from the comfort of home encouraged me to take it up professionally and generate a group of professionals who can replicate it and make it a household practice. That is when idea of ScrapShala struck me.”
Further, she added, “India, being one of the dirtiest countries in the world, I believed that Scrapshala will fill a huge gap and will give employment to hundreds of skilled, less-privileged professionals.” Shikha has completed the graduation from Hansraj College, Delhi University, and post graduation in environmental studies from TERI University in New Delhi.While pursuing the courses, the internships and job she had taken opened extensive travel avenues across India with a new set of people every time, further giving her a chance to evolve as an even better person. Working at Reliance Foundation exposed me to rural India and experience real-world problems. It was a perfect transition from academic to working life. It made me meet an amazing set of people at ground level whose simple interventions were solving big problems and bringing a change in society.
“IIT Madras introduced me to social entrepreneurship. I met many startup founders and understood the hardships and strategies of implementing an idea successfully. However, my experiences made me confident to build an idea and start my own journey of entrepreneurship” she explained.
Did your family support your decision of getting into a Start-up than a regular job?
No, my family didn’t support the idea, initially. It is difficult for parents to understand the startup culture and the potential they have to bring a change as they harp on a secured job. They were even more worried about me being a girl and choosing an unconventional idea like Scrapshala, which had no big players in India to prove that it is viable.
What challenges did you face initially, in setting up ScrapShala?
Working with “scrap” was the biggest challenge and it still remains. Commercializing something made out of scrap was difficult in many ways. Making artisan work on scrap, designing the products, making family believe that it was not a disrespectful job and making clients accept the upcycled products was a struggle. As our team doesn’t have any professional designers and it becomes difficult at times to make them agree that we can still pull off a great product using our common sense.
And, of course, being a female from a conservative Marwari business family who has taken stepping stone to start this venture from a Tier II city like Varanasi, was a big challenge. It was difficult to answer why and how I would be able to pull off an unconventional idea like ScrapShala.
In the world, where girls of marriageable age are expected to stay polished from head to toe all day around, it was very challenging for us to pull out day-long public events such as awareness campaigns, cleanliness drives, workshops and exhibitions.
It was also difficult to convince investors to get involved with a woman-led team and most common question was “what will happen once you girls get married?”
Where did you pull your funding from?
Personal savings, for now.
Well, it was quite a sturdy and bold move, that Shikha has taken. And, it goes without saying that this is the need of the hour.
She chose Varanasi to set up the base as it is her hometown and being at home gives you certain security and flexibility to explore an idea over living alone in the big city. She also wanted her mother to join in as a designer.
Plus, she opined that starting a product based venture requires a serious investment and some time, and in tier-2 and tier-3 cities usually lower the running or operational cost to a greater extent. She could have started with bigger cities, but her remarks seem quite convincing, “Bigger cities have more waste, but they also have more people working on a common problem. However, smaller cities tend to get ignored; hence, the market remains untapped. In the future, we have plans to scale up in bigger cities.”
She continued with the statistics, “Solid waste generation In Varanasi is around 425 tonnes per day with almost zero waste segregation and recycling facility within the city. A large percentage of it should be recyclable.”
How do you collect or gather the materials to be recycled?
We collect scrap from people on door-to-door basis. A lot of people/industry happily donate scrap to us on a weekly basis and many friends now courier us scrap from different cities too. We also work with the municipal corporation of Varanasi, especially for the spot-fixing community drives. The donated scrap is further segregated, cleaned and stored at our workshop.
Any specific plan for the collection of recyclable materials during festivals (or after that)?
Yes, we did one during Diwali last year and plan to do it in future also. It’s convenient for people also to be part of such drives where they can get rid of the domestic scrap and donate it for something useful.
One can recycle different waste materials like Plastics (PETE: found in Soft drink, juice, and cough syrup containers; HDPE: found in Milk jugs, detergent and shampoo bottles; ‘V’: Polyvynyl Chloride 4: found in Mouthwash, tonic, and pet shampoo containers), Metal Cans (Steel, tin, aluminium), Glass Bottles or jars, Packaging, Paperboard, Plastic, and Paper.
No, we don’t supply scrap to any other organization, but we conduct skill training sessions of upcycling for many NGOs and educational organizations.Do you supply the scrap materials as a help to some NGOs or organizations as well?
What is the demand for your recycled items in brick and mortar retail outlets and e-commerce?
We have our workshop in Varanasi where people can visit to interact with the artisans and buy/order the products. The brick-and-mortar gives a validation to customers over online shopping when the product is new and unconventional. It’s been a year for Scrapshala and our offline sales are more than online.
Our products range between Rs 100 to 5000 depending upon time and skill required to finish a product.
You are leading an all-women team for ScrapShala. Tell us about the concept and objective behind it.
Since childhood, I dreamt of being an independent girl, who is capable of making her own decisions and support her lifestyle. Today, I feel proud to be able to move in the same direction.
It was not a conscious decision, though, to have an all-woman leadership team.
When I moved to Varanasi after nine long years, the city had changed a lot. I needed to get connected to the city, its problems and people. My mother helped me out and a school friend, Kriti Singh, who eventually got interested and joined us in time from the initial days. Gradually, a few more girls joined us as interns and got interested to create the team.
Now our team has a mix of male and female artisans/ interns. However, I ensure that I give a chance to any women who have skills or are ready to learn some more.
We also work with a few NGOs for providing skill training to the less-privileged girls in Varanasi. A woman-led team is usually perceived as weak, but when you have doers in the team, things work magic. Plus, the women of this era are pro-active and ambitious.
All the metro cities are grappling with the waste management system, due to lack of budget, workforce, and others. Some measures should be undertaken in the metro cities and small cities, to streamline the entire process of waste management, making it more effective. Shikha agrees to this and share some of her opinions as to how can things be put back in shape.
“Waste segregation importance at the consumer level will solve half of the problems in the waste management sector. Behavioural change is required here, to start with. Educational institutions and community level drives can play a major role here. Once segregation is done, there are plenty solutions of value-added product creation, disposal methodologies, etc., which are presently limited, because of a lack of waste segregation.
Adopting a zero-waste lifestyle and consuming consciously should be adopted at house level. At industrial/business level also, there are multiple ways to manage scrap such as paper, cardboard, plastic, rubber, water, which are practical and affordable. If this is done, none of the municipal, corporations would have any excuse to refrain from the duty to keep the cities clean.”
At Scrapshala, they emphasize on bringing a behavioural change at consumer level and motivating them to adopt a sustainable lifestyle, while imparting equal stress on creating employment avenues for the less-privileged artisans and students in India. This is how they staying aligned with the SDGs.
Are you planning to expand your reach?
Yes, we are planning to upscale ourselves by this year end, by foraying into co-branded retail store in the metros and tier-2 cities of India.
Tell us about your achievements.
Having been able to create jobs for many artisans through Scrapshala especially women, so far tops my list of achievements.
Where do you see Scrapshala, 5 years down the line?
I see Scrapshala pioneering reliable Indian brands, producing a wide range of high quality, sustainable and affordable upcycled goods. That will in turn create a livelihood option for hundreds of Indian artisans.
With a lot of things getting curried at Scrapshala, Shikha is surely going to find 24 hours a day insufficient. This girl with “Never stop trying attitude” somehow manages to have a glance at her favourite book, “Fountainhead by Ayn Rand” despite of busy schedules. Her only ambition in life is, “to be able to execute a few ideas I believe in”.
As mentioned earlier, she always wanted to be an independent woman, she wants every woman to be their real self, instead of being told that they are not meant to do this or that. And, if an idea has the potential, there are high chances of it getting worked out irrespective of gender.
If you want to support Shikha’s initiatives, then you can be a brainstorming partner, a contributor or a buyer. Scrapshala’s products can brought online from a multiple online portals such as Flipkart, Kraftly, Engrave, Amazon, Culture Truck and WAC. To have customized and bulk orders, you may write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org. You may find some other way out as well to showcase support in her venture. Your stepping forward would mean a raised hand for supporting the sustainable way of living.
Well, if not in her workshop, then Shikha will be found reading, listening to music, or travelling and exploring new places. One is clear for sure, she is not ready to settle but uses her mettles to fulfil her goals while striking a balance between both the lives. Her motto for waste management is: “Start with your own surroundings, and the rest will be taken care of.”