India Interior

No ifs, just butts

Usha Rai | Updated on June 26, 2020

A young entrepreneur turns cigarette waste into finished products

How many people know that cigarette butts, tossed away after a smoke, are among nature’s worst enemies? They are extremely toxic, comprising cellulose acetate that takes 10 years to degrade. Chucking a used cigarette into a water body is equally dangerous because one snubbed out butt can contaminate a litre of water with 20 harmful chemicals, says Naman Gupta, founder of Code Effects Pvt Ltd.

Gupta and his team of workers have been collecting cigarette butts from Delhi, Mumbai, Pune, Bengaluru and other cities across the country and recycling them in his factory in Noida, Uttar Pradesh. The treated waste is made ready for women in villages close by to fashion cushions, bolsters, soft toys, keychains, mosquito repellents, even organic manure.

Gupta set up his venture in 2018. By financial year 2019-2020 the team had collected a whopping 10,000 kg of cigarette waste, of which 40 per cent has been recycled and utilised. Each kg cigarette waste comprises 4,000 cigarette butts. It is estimated that 4.5 million tonnes of cigarette waste litter the environment annually worldwide.

Gupta is undoubtedly one of the first to recycle cigarette waste. His organisation provides an end-to-end solution for the problem and ensures that toxic cigarette waste is recycled and its environmental impact reduced. The cigarette waste collectors include vendors, corporate offices, restaurants, ragpickers and volunteers.

Using his own unique technology, Gupta has trained workers to recycle the waste at his factory while rural women use the treated waste to make finished products. “So, while cleaning the environment, we empower women with employment,” he says. Looking at the colourful products, it is difficult to believe they are from cigarette waste.

Gupta’s business journey is a result of his entrepreneurial spirit even as a child. As a 10-year-old, he would circulate comic books in his housing society, charging a rupee as rental. While in college, he noticed cigarette waste in a friend’s apartment. A non-smoker himself and committed to environment issues, Gupta found that cigarette butts are the most littered item worldwide and there are no specific regulations for disposal or recycling them in India. This ignited the idea of finding a solution and led to his venture.

The chain of employment he has created while cleaning up the environment is interesting. Cigarette waste receptacles — Vbins — are provided to collectors. He pays a fee of ₹600 to ₹1,500 to companies and restaurants for three to 11 months of cigarette waste collection. The pick-up is bi-monthly, from customers in Noida, Delhi and Gurugram. Ragpickers and volunteers are given an incentive of ₹200-250 per kg of cigarette waste, applicable for all cities of India. There are specific paid contracts too for generating bulk quantities from across the country. Once the waste reaches the factory in Noida, the butts are separated into paper and polymer manually. The polymer is shredded and recycled using a ‘secret’ chemical composition. The recycling process takes 24 hours, the chemicals used are bio-degradable. The paper is converted into pulp and used to make mosquito repellents; 25-30 women separate the paper and polymer manually, five women produce cushions, soft toys and other products from recycled polymer. Three women prepare mosquito repellents.

For separating the cigarette butts manually into paper and polymer, the women earn between ₹80 and ₹120 per kg of cigarette waste. They are paid per piece for key chains, cushions and soft toys. Those employed to package and label products are paid per hour. To protect the women from health hazards, the use of gloves and masks is mandatory.

For 25-year-old Gupta, who is now studying for an M Com degree, this is a business with a difference. He is happy to address the issue of cigarette waste while providing employment to women. He says with conviction, “cigarette waste recycling is an art and my organisation is the artist.”

The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi

Published on June 26, 2020

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