While studying for my Master’s degree, I got introduced to the concept of a social enterprise. The fact that businesses could make money by doing something beneficial for society, fascinated me!

A month later, I happened to walk into a small boutique that sold ‘upcycled’ products. I must confess, I always had a pre-conceived notion about environmentally-conscious products – that they were visually unappealing or inconsistent in quality. But the products in this store, made me go “Wow!” There was a visiting card holder, created using the art of book origami, a sure-shot conversation starter. I also remember this exquisite showpiece made of nuts and bolts, a creative use of random waste objects. My only grouse was the high pricing.

When I returned to India, I realised I didn’t want a desk job at a large corporate. Instead, I chose to work at a travel start-up. On weekends and after work, I would experiment with upcycling. In case you’re wondering, upcycling is greener than recycling.

It uses lesser energy and creates products of equal or higher quality while recycling uses more energy to create products of equal or lesser quality and value. To quote a simple example, taking a glass bottle and melting it to make a new glass bottle is recycling. However, using your creativity to turn it into a stylish vase – that’s upcycling. Initially, I would upcycle anything I could get my hands on! I was hungry to learn and gradually realised that there was huge potential in managing waste using upcycling.

Up-Scaling

Within six months, I quit my job and began the journey of ‘The Upcycle Project’. I started selling at exhibitions and got a great response. After taking this route for a few months, I began thinking about profitability and scale. I wanted to make products that were affordable and well-designed while creating a brand that urban youth identified with. More than anything, I wanted to change the way people looked at trash.

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Handmade products are usually expensive due to the labour element. So, I began to mechanise production so I could compete with mainstream quirky brands in terms of cost, consistency in quality and delivery timelines. The company also needed more focus. So, I chose to use only one material – waste vinyl records made from a plastic called Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which cannot be recycled. We make coasters, key-chains, book ends, clocks, serving platters, bookmarks and other unique products, and our pricing starts at Rs. 100.

Learning Curves

Social media has been the most important part of our brand-building and awareness throughout our journey. Initially, it helped me converse with like-minded people, educate consumers and also encourage upcycling DIY projects. This inspired people to share their own projects! In the first year, we also tapped Facebook and Instagram to put up products for sale and WhatsApp to generate orders. It was like an informal shop and the only way we sold products.

Also for any bootstrapped start-up, hiring is tough. Therefore, a lot of your time will be spent trying to master things you have no skill-set for. Specifically, for me, since I do not have a design background, it is difficult explaining concepts in my head. But I have overcome this constraint by learning how to create reference boards and detailed descriptions. I have also been blessed with a fantastic designer and manufacturer, with whom, I am able to communicate very well.

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Getting Excited About Waste

Today, The Upcycle Project has fulfilled orders from over 15 different cities and towns in India and has upcycled over 900 kg of waste! We have a trusted supply chain for raw materials, great vendors and a reliable team. We sell through our own website and 18 different platforms. We have also custom designed furniture and table accessories from recycled wood and other bits and pieces, for two commercial establishments in Mumbai. But this is just the beginning. The waste management industry has so far just revolved around the multi-million dollar recycling space and very few companies have really been able to use creativity and design to enter the retail space with waste. But that is what we are trying to do – get people excited about products made from waste.

By: Amishi Shah