Founder Anish Malpani (back row, far left) and the Ashaya team model the startup's first proof-of-concept product, a pair of sunglasses made from recycled chip packets.
In a world where flexible packaging is everywhere and hardly any of it is recycled, a small social enterprise in India — founded by none other than my little brother, Anish Malpani — says it has cracked the code.
Flexible packaging is almost uniformly single-use and is the most challenging market segment to address toward realizing a circular economy for plastics. Due to its low weight, low cost and high functionality, flexible plastic packaging is used for almost everything — fresh fruit, meat, dry food, confectionary, drinks, personal care products, stationery items, tools, electronics and more — making it the fastest growing category of plastic packaging.
Launched two years ago, Ashaya is a social enterprise based in Pune that has managed to recycle this hard-to-recycle, multi-layered plastic packaging (MLP) into high-quality material.
“We are recycling post-consumer metalized multi-layered plastic packaging (MLP) — i.e. packets of chips, chocolate wrappers and so on — unfiltered. As in, we don’t pick and choose what MLP to recycle — we recycle all of it,” says Anish, founder of Ashaya.
Recycling what’s impossible to recycle
Globally, near 0 percent of flexible packaging is recycled. In other words, practically none of it. This is because flexible packaging results in a low-value, high-volume composite waste — containing up to five or six different materials — that is considered economically and technically to be nearly impossible to recycle. It ends up in landfills and accounts for a disproportionate share of leakage into the ocean worldwide.
“Eighty percent of all leakage into the oceans is flexible packaging," Anish says. "We’ve found a way to extract materials from this packaging and upcycle it into high-quality, largely consistent materials and products that are more recyclable than the original chip packet. The material properties we have been able get are almost virgin-like, and its applications are boundless."
Ashaya's team has spent the last two years experimenting in their lab in Pune and has found a way to not only recycle flexible packaging, but also reinvigorate it. They chemo-mechanically extract materials from this waste using a patent-pending technology and use those materials to create sunglasses, the company's first proof-of-concept product. Each pair of sunglasses is made of five chip packets.
“These will probably be the most sustainable products you’ll own, both environmentally and socially," Anish says. "They’re also highly functional as they are comfortable to wear; light and won’t break even if you drive a car over them!”
Going to the consumer goods market to start with was a bold move. “We were able to go to the consumer market because we have complete vertical integration of our operations — from shredding the waste, to cutting the lenses of our sunglasses, to selling them on our website,” Anish explains. “This has proved to have more benefits than we imagined. It has enabled us to minimize dependencies on external stakeholders, allowing us to trot along no matter what happens.”
Owning the supply chain: From trash to market
What's more, Ashaya has hired its own waste pickers in Pune so the company owns the entire supply chain, from trash to market.
“We buy waste directly from waste pickers and pay a premium for it," Anish says. "Most importantly, we formally incorporate them into our supply chain. We have hired five waste-pickers so far part-time, whose monthly income has increased by an average of 120 percent."
It is estimated that India generates 65 million tons of waste each year and is home to more than 4 million informal waste pickers who are marginalized and at the bottom of the socio-economic chain. Ten percent of Ashaya sales go toward keeping the children of waste pickers in school to assist them in breaking out of the poverty cycle.
Contributing to circular economy for plastic
To create a circular economy for plastic, we must eliminate the use of unnecessary plastic and innovate to make the plastics we do need recyclable, reusable or compostable.
Ashaya is able to do all of this. By recycling and repurposing flexible packaging that has long plagued the environment, the company is not only creating a more sustainable world, but also transforming the lives of some of India's most underrepresented people.
The long-term goal for Ashaya is to scale the quantity of material it can produce. “We are still tiny," Anish says. "We have two small labs in a space of 1,200 square feet, so we cannot do large volumes. No one wants to buy 10 kilograms of material, they want 10 tons. At our current rate of production, that would take us 10 years. Our next step is to raise funds to take our technology from a micro-pilot plant to a full-scale pilot plant to demonstrate the viability of what we are trying to achieve.”
I personally think my brother’s story warrants a film: Indian boy quits high-flying career in Manhattan to move back to India and make a change. Not the Bollywood kind! A documentary series of his journey from being a finance director at a radio station in New York to finding his purpose as a social entrepreneur in India. Although he launched his company two years ago, it took him five years before that to find his calling whilst he travelled the world working in social enterprises and NGOs in Guatemala, Kenya and India.
I am so proud to see my brother evolve into a true innovator, entrepreneur and social champion who has chosen to dedicate his life to address some of the world’s most pressing challenges.
Images courtesy of Ashaya
Abha Malpani Naismith is a writer and communications professional who works towards helping businesses grow in Dubai. She is a strong believer in the triple bottom line and keen to make a difference. She is also a new mum, trying to work out a balance between thriving at work and being a mum. In her endeavor to do that, she founded the Working Mums Club, a newsletter for mums who want to build better careers and be better mums.