Optimising material use. Last week we spoke about the future and we agreed that whatever the future holds we shouldn't be prevented from doing everything we can to make the world a better place. There is an obsession with economic growth and increasing argument about whether it's possible. There is no doubt that growth requires more materials and that materials on earth are finite.
The idea of the circular economy is to use, reuse and recycle materials to minimise the amount that we have to take from virgin resources. In an ideal world there is no such thing as a waste. When something is finished with it becomes an input to a new process. We are very far from achieving that, but there are people working hard to make it a reality. People like those at the Material Library of India. And it’s about a lot more than just collecting things up after they have been thrown away.
Recently I spoke to Shubhi Sachan, founder of the Material Library of India.
By the way, if you're reading this on the website you'll find that the transcript of our interview, prepared by the good people at the material library, is more of an overview rather than a verbatim copy. If you listen to the audio you'll realise that I'm not nearly as peremptory as it might appear.
This is how it went.
Anthony Day . Material library of India is a consultancy specialising in research and design looking at waste and how we can make best use of it. Please expand on that.
Shubhi Sachan – When we say that we are a research and design consultancy and we focus on waste, we primarily mean that people do not need to look at recycling as the only solution when they are looking, handling or finding solutions for waste. People need to understand that once the damage is done, recycling is only a damage control situation. Whereas, once you start the process at the stage of inception, then understand how at every stage waste reduction can happen. That gives you a better understanding, how do you produce a material from your assembly line to production line which can be handled in the best possible manner. Right now you are just producing something and want a solution of it without even knowing if the right kind of solution exists or not. So, that’s essentially in coming into the research and design space. Current recycling scenario is a space where we run after finding a solution rather than looking at the origin of the problem.
Anthony Day . First of all you are looking at reducing waste in the manufacturing process, and then finding some use from the waste that remains.
Shubhi Sachan – Yes, that’s correct.
Anthony Day . So, this is very much in the spirit of a circular economy which says there is no waste, there is material for the next process.
Shubhi Sachan – Exactly. Right now we are just doing the damage control kind of a thing. As humans, we are thinking that recycling is the solution. Recycling is essentially covering up for our mistakes. Recycling is not the solution. We haven’t designed materials to be recycled. We haven’t understood them properly, like their chemistry, how to amalgamate them in a way so that they can be separated at the end of their respective lives and recycling can be achieved at its best.
Anthony Day . How is Material Library of India addressing this challenge?
Shubhi Sachan – This is a very simple process. We are using the existing set of machineries which are available in the production line setup. We are just tweaking how to use them, how to make them fit into our kind of understanding. We are collaborating with subject matter experts, for eg. If you are working with a polymer based waste, you collaborate with a polymer technologist/powder metallurgist, different kinds of specialists on their respective subject. However, all their life they have dedicated most of the work in finding new things. They have not looked at recycling. So, when you stir the direction of the same wealth of knowledge into recycling, that’s where you are intervening and controlling the way you want your process to happen and that’s how you validate what you are doing is actually making sense.
Anthony Day . Which waste streams are you involved in working with?
Shubhi Sachan – We are currently doing quite a few textile projects. We are dealing with various kinds of projects within the textile genre. Along with that we have a lot of plastic waste.
Anthony Day . In your website you talked about a range of plastics some of which are non-recyclable and finding a new use for them. How successful is that?
Shubhi Sachan – So far at lab level it is successful for us.
We are talking about waste in 2 sections – post-industrial waste and post-consumer waste. When you are talking about post-industrial it's fairly easy, you have the data sheet in place, materials cleanliness and check and so on. It is as good as your industrial output.
When you talk about post-consumer waste with quantities to justify one kind of process also becomes a challenge, that’s the first step. Forget about having a data sheet, forget about material coming from water streams etc which are secondary. To have one kind of material to feed the machinery also becomes a challenge. So post-consumer waste is fairly challenging whereas post-industrial becomes fairly easy when you put the right kind of juxtaposition of different kinds of industrial scenarios in place.
Anthony Day . So presumably Post-consumer is mixed up, contaminated and has to be sorted. Does that not have significant cost implications?
Shubhi Sachan – It does. When it comes to post-consumer I think the cost implication is in so many dimensions that it is not only economic cost, but its cost at various levels. That’s why EPR has come into place in the plastic industry for plastic waste management.
EPR – Extended Producer’s responsibility. It has come into place in various countries now, It’s very much applied/implemented on ground in India as well. It’s a huge deal if you don’t comply with EPR norms. It is constantly being amended because that’s a fresh playground every govt. is trying to make rules for. People have to adhere to it. If fairly done by any corporate, that kind of gives a sense to people whether it’s their waste or not, they have to recycle a certain number of produce they have put out in the market or in the environment. In that case it becomes easy to communicate to the brands that design flaws can be corrected easily when it comes to recyclability to any kind of material. For eg.,a brand looking only after the aesthetic value vs ignoring the recyclability aspect. If they have to recycle other brands' materials also because of EPR (they can’t go and only fetch their brand’s produce, they have to recycle a certain amount). That quantity has to match. In that case it is easier to communicate to the brands and tell them can you not bring these kinds of design flaws on one page and come to a mutual ground especially in the FMCG sector where the goods are pretty common. It’s just a matter of competition. So can you not bring everything to one ground so that recyclability is far better than what it is right now.
Anthony Day . You have worked with quite well known brands, haven’t you?
Shubhi Sachan – Yes, luckily we have. When I was starting, I was speaking Russian and Hebrew to most people. I have been asked from people across the globe how come India even responding to this kind of a subject. But luckily, I have been earning my bread and butter out of this for the past 10 years.
Anthony Day . You have got quite a diverse portfolio, one of the things you talk about on your website regarding seed library. Tell us more about that.
Shubhi Sachan - Before I directly jump on seed library, sustainability as a whole when we talk about, it’s not a rocket science in my understanding. However deeper I dig, it’s just living consciously and once you start to live consciously, it starts with pretty basic fundamental things of life. That’s how when the seed library project came to us, it made complete sense. Because when we are working with agricultural waste, we are seeing that there is a huge gap between people chucking out this kind of waste vs they knowing that this is the part of the plant which holds the seed as well. Most people don’t know which aspect of that particular plant holds the seed and what are the other variations apart from the mainstream cash crops circulated in the market. When IKEA’s communication team reached out for a seed library, we were happy to do it because it is a very strong dimension of sustainability which tell people how to be self-reliant and how to understand you own food cycle to be able to relate to it better, to be able to reduce once footprint and to be able to be healthy while consuming and understand what it takes to bring that portion of food to your table.
Anthony Day . On the other hand a lot of your work has been done in the fashion industry, hasn’t it?
Shubhi Sachan – I guess that’s why we have been reached out for a lot of textile projects.
Anthony Day . You have an M.A in Materials Futures from St. Martins in London. Don’t you have a global clientele?
Shubhi Sachan – Yes. Right now we have quite global clientele. We have clients from Australia, Netherlands, India, Germany.
Anthony Day . You are pushing an open door on people willing to listen.
Shubhi Sachan – As I said when I started, I was trying and people were not understanding. My brief has also got rationaled up, it has got tighter and tighter over the years. More clearer the rationale, the objective, it is easy to communicate. Over the years, I have been telling people forcefully or willingly or in whichever manner that this is important, let's do it. They have to shell out some kind of money for it, it doesn’t happen only under an NGO or non-profit organisation only. It has to have a cost.
Anthony Day . Does that leave you optimistic for the future that companies will take responsible action?
Shubhi Sachan – I would say Yes. The task is much bigger. It’s a gigantic problem. But I am glad that every single minute of my work life is dedicated to fixing a problem, not being a part of the problem. At the same time we are letting people know how not to get green-washed. That’s one very important aspect of us trying to communicate to people how this is not fully justified vs there are other better solutions as well.
Anthony Day . Any final message you would like to convey to the listeners of the Sustainable Futures report?
Shubhi Sachan – The final message is very simple. Sustainability is conscious living. No matter how complicated sometimes it gets for our research process or whatever we are doing, sustainability is conscious living and it starts from very simple acts which we begin within the boundaries of our home. That’s how we need to start understanding that and stop living like we have been pushed and we are rolling over.
My thanks to Shubhi Sachan, founder of the Material Library of India.
Thanks too, to you for listening and also to my loyal patrons who support the Sustainable Futures Report so that it remains independent and ad free. As I've said before, if you like it please tell your friends. If you don't like it please tell me. Actually so far I've not had any serious criticism but I know I can always do better and I am very grateful for the suggestions and ideas which I receive from time to time. I'll do my best to follow them up.
Next week’s episode is an interview with Stacy Savage, the Texas Trash Talker. I know you've all been waiting for this. This interview is about another aspect of waste. Stacy's objective is to help her clients achieve zero waste. Learn all about it next week.
That was the Sustainable Futures Report
I’m Anthony Day
Until next time.