A Recykal recycling drop-off point at the Amrabad Tiger Reserve, a protected area of the Nallamala Forest in the Indian state of Telangana. (Image courtesy of Recykal)
Businesses can help raise awareness about ocean plastic pollution by sponsoring a beach cleanup, but after the trucks and volunteers leave, the waste will continue to wash on shore. The Indian startup Recykal is cutting plastic pollution off at the source instead. It created an award-winning, app-based system that rewards local refuse collectors for picking up waste, while offering new opportunities for businesses to help raise awareness about solutions that work.
The growing plastic pollution crisis
Ocean plastic pollution is the leading global symbol of waste mismanagement. The World Economic Forum helped raise the profile of the problem in a 2016 report, with a headline warning that the oceans will hold more plastic than fish by 2050 if something doesn’t change.
The problem of small plastic particles in the ocean environment is also a focus of attention. An estimated 170 trillion plastic particles are floating in the oceans, according to a 2023 study.
Despite the raised awareness, the amount of plastic in the world’s oceans continues to increase, and researchers are calling for prevention strategies and countermeasures.
Recovering ocean-bound plastic at scale
Recykal called renewed attention to the ocean plastic problem in December when it announced the Samudramanthan program to stop plastic from entering the ocean through rivers and coastal communities.
In Sanskrit, Samudra Manthana refers to “a churning of the ocean” and is the name of a well-known story in Hindu mythology. Recykal describes the Samudramanthan initiative as the largest ocean-bound plastic reclamation project in the world, with a total of more than 70,000 metric tons of plastic collected from 207 districts spread across 19 different Indian states since 2017. All but one of the districts include rivers or ocean coasts.
That is just the beginning. Recykal plans to double the number of ocean coastal districts in the program from 33 to 66.
An app-based system that works
The scale of the Samudramanthan initiative is all the more impressive considering that it does not just cover shorelines. It covers all areas within a radius of 10 kilometers from rivers and coasts. TriplePundit spoke with Chetan Baregar, co-founder and associate director of marketing at Recykal, to learn how the company coordinated the initiative across such a vast, sprawling territory.
The task seems especially intimidating in a nation where recycling largely depends on the work of self-employed refuse collectors, who have historically labored in poverty.
These refuse collectors — also called waste pickers — are largely excluded from policymaking, yet their role as “invisible environmentalists” was recognized by the United Nations Development Program in a 2022 report. The organization Global Alliance for Incinerator Alternatives also called attention to their key role in waste management systems, putting the number of refuse collectors at 1.5 million in India alone.
These self-employed collectors lack the connections and resources to realize the full value of their goods, Baregar said. In addition to suppressing collector incomes, the piecemeal system also leads to inefficiencies along the recycling chain.
The Recykal solution is a cloud-based app that enables refuse collectors to connect with broader recycling markets, Baregar said. Unlike the gig-work apps typified by Uber, though, the Recykal team envisioned a more holistic digital ecosystem that benefits all participants.
“The story of recycling usually happens at the transactional level,” Baregar said. “But we formed an ecosystem at the cloud level where all stakeholders come together.”
Bringing recycling stakeholders together
Collector education is a key feature of the Recykal system. Refuse collectors traditionally focus on only one or two recyclable materials, and they typically sell to a limited number of local recyclers, Baregar said. In contrast, the Recykal app enables them to do business with a wide network of recyclers that handle six different categories of waste — including tires, paper, e-waste and plastic.
“With this network, we can create additional business for these entrepreneurs,” Baregar said. The recyclers in the Recykal network are pre-vetted and authorized, enabling collectors to avoid getting entangled with the consequences of illegal recycling.
Encouraging self-employed individuals to adopt new business practices can be difficult, but the assurances built into the app help smooth the way, Baregar said. That includes cutting down the traditional 30-to-60-day turnaround for billing to less than a week or even instantaneously.
The ripple effect of app-based recycling
By creating new market efficiencies for collectors and recyclers, the app also supports improvements in the overall quality of the recycling stream.
“As they start using the app, they understand that now they have new options,” Baregar said. “They are not depending on regional buyers. The demand is taken care of, so they can focus on sourcing and responsible recycling.”
Digital technology can encourage behavior change among consumers, he said. For example, some tourists leave plastic beverage bottles along the trek to the Kedarnath religious site in the Himalayas. Waste-hauling trucks and other equipment are not an option in remote locations like that, but Recykal’s Digital Deposit Refund System motivated many tourists to start carrying out their recyclable materials to collect a deposit, with each item bearing a unique digital stamp.
Some tourists continue to discard litter, but the refund system also motivated local residents to scour the route for discarded bottles to return for extra cash, resulting in an overall high rate of return. “The locals use it as a source of income, so now there is a race to collect the plastic,” Baregar said.
How businesses can help
Based on the success of the Kedarnath pilot, the Digital Deposit Refund System has already expanded. But it was difficult to convince local stakeholders at first. Shri Abhishek Ruhela, district magistrate of the Indian state of Uttarkashi where Kedarnath is located, noted that the initiative initially faced pushback from shopkeepers, distributors and hotels.
“However with consistent efforts of the administration and team Recykal, the project is gaining popularity and support from locals,” he said in a statement in November. “This collaboration with the Uttarakhand government, aimed at halting plastic pollution, was a very successful initiative that resulted in winning the Digital India Award 2022, and has been a key milestone in our journey.”
The focus on local education and participation provides businesses with opportunities to engage with public awareness campaigns that support innovative new recycling programs.
Public education will become all the more important as sophisticated new waste management systems emerge. Advanced digital technology enables recycling centers to scan bags from individual households, making it possible to implement a system of recycling incentives, or penalties, as the case may be, Baregar said.
“We realize that plastic is so deep-rooted in modern life that reduction might happen over a period of time, so our focus is that what we are producing today must be managed,” he said.
The ability to tell who is sorting their recyclables properly and who is not may seem overly intrusive, but to the extent that consumers are responsible for ocean plastic pollution, it is probably a necessary one.
Images courtesy of Recykal.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.