Pioneering the technology that could lead us to a waste-free world

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Nivedha RM, CEO and Founder, Trashcon

  • If value can be derived from recycling most waste, most waste will be recycled.
  • Sorting waste into degradable and non-degradable materials is challenging.
  • Through partnerships, TrashCon is on a mission to create a waste-free world.
  • Nivedha RM, TrashCon’s Founder and CEO, is the subject of a short film by UpLink and the Global Plastic Action Partnership, which you can watch in full here.

Over 90% of all the waste in most cities in developing countries is dumped or burned, causing all kinds of pollution. My street in Bangalore was no different. It was common to see waste dumped and burned overnight and for mosquitoes and flies to enter the neighbourhood buildings. One day, however, a group of us decided to clean up the street. With permission from the local authority, we removed all the rubbish and were applauded by our community.

But the celebrations didn’t last long. The waste reappeared again night after night. Feeling helpless, I demanded to know why the local authority was letting this waste build up again around our homes. The answer I got was that waste is dumped as value can’t be generated from it.

Generating value from waste

Value cannot be generated from plastic bags full of food, diapers, dead rats, anything you can possibly imagine and more. To extract value, the first step is to segregate. Only when you segregate the waste into degradable and non-degradable can you extract value from it. The degradable can be composted or converted to fuel and the non-degradable can be recycled, then there is no question of dumping. But, due to infrastructure, education levels and the density of the population, not everyone segregates their waste in India and many other developing countries. Even when they do, the processing infrastructure is not very developed. So, too much waste ends up in landfills and, as there is not enough land available, it is dumped on streets, in drains and in bodies of water.

Feeling helpless, I looked at all possible solutions and delved deeper to understand the staggering statistics of my country generating so much waste per day, the majority of which was dumped. This exercise did not yield any results. I couldn’t work out how we could segregate our waste in an environmentally-friendly manner. But someone had to solve the problem and I thought, why can’t it be me?

At the age of 22, I was determined to solve the world’s waste menace and create a waste-free world. Naïve, but determined, I decided to leave my job and education opportunities behind and find a solution.

Developing a bot that separates waste

My next three years were spent working from dawn till dusk in dump sites as little more than a ragpicker. I was blessed to find the most amazing co-founder in my mentor and chartered accountant, Saurabh Jain, who left his well-established business to join me on this mission to find a solution. He used his life savings to help develop high-tech waste-sorting prototypes.

For three years we felt like we were walking blindfolded. You see, waste is extremely dynamic. Look in your dustbin, it changes daily. We were trying to build a system that took waste of any kind of moisture or characteristic and segregated it into wet and dry, degradable and non-degradable. Plus, we wanted to make it low-cost and low-footprint, as most developing countries cannot afford too much land, and most importantly, skill-proof. Most of the people who work in dump sites are unskilled. We were expecting magic to happen.

Years of sacrifice and hard work analysing all sorts of waste from rotting food to used sanitary pads finally paid off. We built a bot that could segregate the toughest waste into wet and dry components to 85% efficiency, doing about 200 kg/hour. And, in less than a year, we scaled up to 200 tons/day of capacity. Since then, we have built several upgraded versions that provide up to 95% segregation efficiency.

Finding a use for previously non-recyclable plastic

We now stop 500 tons of waste per day from entering landfills and oceans. But that is not all. During this journey, we realised early on that if we do end up segregating the wet and dry components, the majority of the dry components are made of non-recyclable plastics called multi-layered plastics, such as biscuit wrappers, with a layer of aluminium stuck to them. These plastics are non-recyclable, hence most of the plastic dumped anywhere is of this kind.

Having found a solution for segregation, we ended up with the bulk of wet waste being converted to compost or bio-gas, but a substantial amount of plastic with no value. Again, the only thought we had was, someone has to solve this problem, why not us?

We invented a proprietary system that recycles traditionally non-recyclable plastics into recycled sheets, similar to plywood. From these sheets, which we call WoWBoards, you can build benches, desks, tables, chairs and anything that can be made of plywood.

Not only have we solved the problem of the plastic menace, we have also helped prevent the felling of trees and created new employment and entrepreneurship opportunities by creating a new industry from waste that otherwise would be dumped.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about plastic pollution?

More than 90% of plastic is never recycled, and a whopping 8 million metric tons of plastic waste are dumped into the oceans annually. At this rate, there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans by 2050.

The Global Plastic Action Partnership (GPAP) is a collaboration between businesses, international donors, national and local governments, community groups and world-class experts seeking meaningful actions to beat plastic pollution.

In Ghana, for example, GPAP is working with technology giant SAP to create a group of more than 2,000 waste pickers and measuring the quantities and types of plastic that they collect. This data is then analysed alongside the prices that are paid throughout the value chain by buyers in Ghana and internationally.

It aims to show how businesses, communities and governments can redesign the global “take-make-dispose” economy as a circular one in which products and materials are redesigned, recovered and reused to reduce environmental impacts.

Read more in our impact story.

Partnering to end waste

Our ecosystem of solutions built to solve one waste problem has become a business opportunity. Entrepreneurs across India and other developing countries are partnering with us to use our systems to clean up their cities.

After close to five years of an incredible journey of mostly downs and a few ups, we have hope. We hope that one day we can be influential in creating a waste-free world. We are humble enough, however, to understand that one solution cannot solve a problem of this magnitude. We are keen to build partnerships across the industry. We believe there is a need for hundreds of TrashCons to end the waste problem.

Now a team of 20, we work every day towards one dream, that in 20 years’ time, when I tell a story to a child that starts: “Once upon a time, there was waste,” that child will ask, “what is waste?” This is our singular vision. We hope to partner, work and seek guidance from every single person who aligns with a similar vision.

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