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Converting Waste to Value

Recycling is not the challenge.

“Initially we thought that recycling was the challenge,” says Angraj Swami, CEO of EcoWrap, a one-stop solution for waste segregation, collection, tracking, recycling, & upcycling. “We learned that recycling is not the challenge – it is the lack of human behavior promoting waste segregation at the source.” Swami has been pursuing his venture alongside four members of the core team since moving to Jaipur in 2017. In the beginning, Swami’s goal was to build an effective business model for optimal utilization of post-consumer products. He was connected to Google through a university project, where he focused on paper recycling, but soon saw that there was already a well-established recycling industry in India. The problem was that they were importing and recycling waste material from other countries rather than recycling waste from India.

If plastics or other recyclable materials are significantly contaminated, whether with vegetable oil or other substances, or if they are not properly sorted, it can become prohibitively expensive for recycling companies to sort themselves. Swami used this learning to build the first iteration of EcoWrap, which worked with 50 households to promote responsible recycling practices. EcoWrap provided households with bins and asked them to segregate the waste when throwing it away. The project started out successfully, but it wasn’t long before families were back to mixing all of their waste again. Swami and his team then began offering incentives to families, such as parking tickets and internet credit, to encourage them, but quickly realized this would not be financially viable in the long run.

Instead, Swami and his team began looking into industries such as hotels, restaurants, and cafés, which would have high volumes of recyclable waste and which were, in many cases, already mandated to properly dispose of waste, thanks to rules and regulations in India. EcoWrap continues to incentivize its customers with the use of rewards, but uses a system of online tokens that can be used to buy items for the business through an online marketplace, which EcoWrap then takes a small commission from. “If the quantity of waste is very large, the logistics become easier,” Swami explains.

If plastics or other recyclable materials are significantly contaminated, whether with vegetable oil or other substances, or if they are not properly sorted, it can become prohibitively expensive for recycling companies to sort themselves.

He believes that there are some fundamental misperceptions about the recycling industry – particularly about the quality of the goods that can be made with recycled materials. “Companies always need raw materials for plastic, raw materials for paper, raw materials for glass. The most impressive thing about our model is that we maintain the quality of the product, reduce contaminants, and collect high-quality materials.” Materials that cannot be recycled through EcoWrap are upcycled. “In the post-consumer products, there are three options: downcycling, upcycling, and recycling. Downcycling is when there is contaminated waste, and this will be of lower quality. Recycled waste is made from non-contaminated waste. Finally, upcycling is when you create a unique new product from the materials that cannot be recycled.” EcoWrap operates in the upcycling market by working with rural, underprivileged areas in India to make products which the company then sells on its online marketplace, which ends up being another commission-based revenue stream for EcoWrap while simultaneously providing livelihoods for the artisans.

None of this would have been possible without the support of Manush Labs and other accelerators that EcoWrap works with, Swami acknowledges. “Manush Labs connected me with a lot of mentors which had initially been a challenge. We worked with professors and experts from MIT, IIT, Social Alpha, and IIM, which was a great experience with a lot of learnings, and they connected me to some investors. With the resources Manush Labs provided, they really provided an outstanding effort to help us.” EcoWrap recently closed a seed round of investment from a Tata Trust-backed impact investing organization.

EcoWrap operates in the upcycling market by working with rural, underprivileged areas in India

“I learned a few things throughout my journey,” Swami says when asked about the process of bringing EcoWrap from an idea to a full-fledged company. “The three qualities of an entrepreneur are passion, patience, and persistence. We have faced many challenges, but three in particular. The first is to find a person who can be a mentor in your sector. The waste management sector is not a high-paying sector, and it is rare to find a mentor who can guide you to build an enterprise here. The second challenge is getting an investor – impact investors are very few in number. And the third major challenge for us was that in the corporate sector, the focus is on personal – or consumer – pain. Waste management, on the other hand, is a social issue – so if you do or do not pay for source segregation, there is no immediate impact on the waste generator’s behavior.”

EcoWrap recently closed a seed round of investment from a Tata Trust-backed impact investing organization.

This is one of the areas Swami hopes to be able to focus on in the future. There is a huge focus on research and development on the waste treatment side, but not as much on the human behaviors that are critical to the success of recycling as an industry. Furthermore, Swami sees new challenges down the road, since as income continues to rise in countries such as India, so too will the amount of waste produced. However, he is undeterred by the challenges ahead. “We see what we need to work on and where we are going. And we are ready to keep up the hard work.”

Erika Desmond is an impact and social enterprise consultant passionate about social and environmental sustainability. She holds a bachelor’s degree in English from Hamilton College and an MBA in Finance from MIT Sloan.

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