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Closing the loop on sustainability

Payel Majumdar Upreti | Updated on September 02, 2021

Trash talk: Social media has fostered a disposable culture that conscious consumers and brands are now fighting against

As new regulations make it imperative to walk the talk on energy efficiency and eco friendliness, a bunch of cool companies design change all the way from planning to production

* Materials have been invented, methods of production have changed, and sustainable materials become more accessible, making it easier for companies to take the sustainable approach in the iterative design stage all the way to production

* Valsad-based Binish Desai, has earned the unofficial title of Recycle Man of India, for his sustainable design solutions. He hit the spotlight recently when he fashioned a brick out of PPE kits and masks after the Covid-19 pandemic brought the problem of a slew of single use biomedical waste with it

* Chaitsi Ahuja, founder of the e-commerce platform for sustainable products called Brown Living, says it is very important to keep in mind the economics of sustainable development, while taking that approach as a brand or organisation

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Whether it is an off-grid refrigerator, bricks made of masks and PPE kits, ink made from particulate matter, or ceramic-based jewellery and garden décor, it is safe to say that the design industry has now adopted sustainability as a driving principle.

Sustainability in design is not a new concept. It refers to any design that seeks to reduce consumption of non-renewable resources, minimises waste, and promotes a healthy environment.

The regulatory push

What’s new however is the regulatory push — both national and international — that is forcing most industries to incorporate sustainability at the design and innovation stage itself in order to be more energy efficient, environment friendly, as well as make products that can be reused and recycled.

Says Geetika Kambli, managing partner of Future Factory, a product design company, “Earlier, even a decade ago, any sustainability question was always settled by viability which decided the matter. Ten years ago, the ecosystem was weak, with very little government or global alignment towards being sustainable. People who took a sustainable stance risked becoming uncompetitive, but with UNEP goals, government regulations across countries have changed.”

Since then, materials have been invented, methods of production have changed, and sustainable materials become more accessible, making it easier for companies to take the sustainable approach in the iterative design stage all the way to production.

Government regulations have been geared towards sustainability after the Indian government ratified the Paris Agreement, similarly, the 17 sustainable development goals that call to balance social, economic and environment sustainability.

Circular economy

Hand-in-hand with sustainable design is a move towards a circular economy, where manufacturers design products for reuse as well as to make them energy efficient. In a circular economy, waste and pollution are designed out of the system.

It has given rise to new business opportunities. For instance, Carbon Craft, is an organisation that uses captured carbon from tyre pyrolysis, acquiring it from various carbon capture companies, and utilises it to make beautiful tiles and other materials that can be used in construction.

The research team at Carbon Craft identified the serious environmental issue of waste tyre management in India, where an estimated 1.5 lakh tonnes of carbon waste is produced when tyres are burned in cement kilns at the end of their life, for the lack of an alternate use. Says Tejas Sidnal from the Carbon Craft founding team, “Exhaust emissions have been tightly regulated for many years, but waste tyre management is totally unregulated. Pyrolytic degradation of tyres is considered an alternate way to break down tyres to oil, steel wires and tyre pyrolysis waste called recovered carbon black (rCB). We use this captured carbon to further process it and make products for end consumers, thus closing the loop.”

The government has also been collaborating with industry to close the loop and create a circular economy through its various programmes and regulations. One such example is the way Hitachi India is providing state-of-the-art technology to the Indian government to harness solar power as well as waste-to-energy plants that reduces the carbon footprint of the country, and takes India closer to its 100 GW solar power generation target by 2022. Companies are working towards the government’s Swachh Bharat mission and the National Resource Efficiency Policy in the area of waste management, where seven sectors such as the automotive sector, plastic packaging, building and construction, electrical equipment, solar photovoltaic sector, steel and aluminium sectors have been identified.

Eco innovations

Safe bet: Desai’s P-block bricks are a cost effective, pest resistant, fire retardant variety, suitable for earthquake-prone regions

 

Finding value in waste is a big part of building a circular economy. One such example is that of Valsad-based Binish Desai, who has earned the unofficial title of Recycle Man of India, for his sustainable design solutions. He hit the spotlight recently when he fashioned a brick out of PPE kits and masks after the Covid-19 pandemic brought the problem of a slew of single use biomedical waste with it. The social entrepreneur told BLink over the phone that he strives to create change for good through disruptive technologies. In a recent TEDx talk, Desai had spoken of the sheer volume of waste produced in India — 19,000 tonnes everyday, equivalent to 10,000 cars in a landfill, and how the country was the sixth largest producer of waste.

Desai’s factories, which employs women from rural households, make P-block bricks (a cost effective, pest resistant, fire retardant, suitable for earthquake-prone regions) that are half the price of regular bricks, and thus recycled over 400 tonnes of industrial waste.

Says Kambli, “Sustainability is a circular economy, but it is important to remember that it is also minimisation of energy use as far as possible. From electric vehicles, emissions, tackling the water situation, renewability to agriculture — a lot of scope lies for design and innovation disruption in these areas to close the energy gap.”

Chhotukool, an off-grid refrigerator, is one such innovation that Future Factory has worked on — a 45-litre low cost device that does away with gas compressor technology in favour of an electronic chip to solve the problem of food wastage in India’s rural areas. “Food wastage is a huge problem in India. Even if rural households can afford a fridge, which a lot of them can’t, the problem of access to electricity 24x7 makes a regular fridge non-viable,” says Kambli. Since Chhotukool has done away with gas coolants, its emissions are much lower, and it consumes way less electricity than a conventional fridge of its size.

Sustainability for health

Into the future: Chaitsi Ahuja, founder of Brown Living, a plastic-free platform for sustainable products

 

Chaitsi Ahuja, founder of the e-commerce platform for sustainable products called Brown Living, says that it is very important to keep in mind the economics of sustainable development, while taking that approach as a brand or organisation. “Social media has fostered a disposable culture that conscious consumers and brands are now fighting against,” says Ahuja. Sustainability in design depends on five aspects — food, energy, waste, water and ecology. “How sustainable a product is depends on the category under which it is sold.” Brown Living has grown from 150 to 5,000 products in the two years since its inception, and Ahuja believes that this is possible only because of the existence of an eco-conscious consumer base.

“It’s not just for the health of the planet, but also about your own health,” says Ahuja. “Usually the things which are mass-produced, and made for single-use end up harming not just the planet but often are bad for our body.”

Brands such as Label Maati, a ceramic jewellery enterprise, are moving away from the rat race to rely on traditional knowledge and wisdom. Materials used in mass-production aren’t always ethically sourced or produced, and ethical sourcing and fair pricing, with dues given to people who are part of the production cycle, is a big part of building a sustainable brand.

Says Poulomi Das, the founder of Label Maati, a Kolkata-based lawyer turned entrepreneur, “Indians are brought up to make responsible choices. Fast fashion would be culturally disapproved of by our previous generation, who believed in preserving everything for its full life, and making best-out-of-waste. I try to keep my bubble wrap and paper packaging minimal to stay true to the sustainable nature of my brand. The colours used in my products are natural and won’t cause allergies.” Given the growing problem of micro-plastics entering human and animal bodies, companies such as Brown Living and Label Maati are trying to keep the use of plastic minimum — plastic free in the case of the former. Ronak Shah, co-founder of sustainable design and decor brand called Chatur Chidiyaa believes that anything can be sustainable, “The message of sustainability needs to be sometimes hidden in the product, and it is through the product that you can make consumer more aware. Hence, some of the responsibility definitely lies on companies to make a difference.”

Back to basics: Ronak Shah’s brand Chatur Chidiyaa is a sustainable brand for home decor items

 

Conscious consumers

The ecosystem of sustainability couldn’t have existed without one key aspect — consumers who are willingly making conscious choices. Brands are unanimous in agreeing that consumers are leading the way by demanding sustainable products. Says Das, “Customers who have come to me so far are themselves very conscious of a certain lifestyle and appreciate sustainability as a design ethic, so a change is coming with the ecosystem.”

So can design and innovation be the solution to the sustainability related issues plaguing the world?

There are two ways of looking at this, says Kambli. “One view is that we should go natural and craft, locally grown and available, bring a balance in the system, but that means you are distributing the manufacturing process. My view is that we need to adapt it to mass scale. Something that has the potential to disrupt and make an impact needs to be brought to scale — and design is key in that.”

Published on September 02, 2021

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