Early this year, a bunch of unlikely ‘business associates’ trooped into the Andheri, Mumbai office of Bisleri International chairman, Ramesh Chauhan. As they cast nervous, furtive glances, it was evident they were uncomfortable in the classy confines of the headquarters. After all, they were more familiar with Mumbai’s streets that they scour for many hours daily. They were rag pickers. They had come to meet Mr Chauhan to review the progress of a ‘business alliance’ that the chairman-and-rag-picker combine had co-created a couple of years ago.
Mr Chauhan, the diminutive, yet feisty entrepreneur, had initiated this partnership to tackle an environmental hazard — over 3 lakh tonnes of PET containers are used and discarded every year. Polyethylene Terephthalate, popularly known as PET, is a non-biodegradable plastic used to package drinking water, carbonated drinks and juices.
Till recently, PET scrap was considered worthless even by rag pickers. Hardly anyone in India’s vibrant raddi market would buy it, leaving the unsightly garbage littered all over. So, Mr Chauhan stepped in and built a partnership with rag pickers, announced attractive prices for PET garbage, commissioned collection centres, purchased about 5000 kg every month, processed it and sold it to companies like Reliance Industries. His intervention birthed an entire PET recycling ecosystem that now collects about 1,200 tonnes of PET waste from Mumbai’s streets every day, according to industry estimates. Another 700 tonnes are collected from the rest of Maharashtra.
Mr Chauhan’s review meeting with the rag pickers that day was to take stock of how profitable the whole initiative was for them.
Rag pickers get other jobs
“Look,” says Mr Chauhan, “rag pickers are no invention by Bisleri. We only tapped the community to recycle PET scrap. And this is a business transaction — the focus is to make it a viable venture for the rag pickers.”
After the success of this pilot project, Mr Chauhan is now replicating it nationally. He has charged his army of 1,500 distributors and 2,300 odd sales staff across the country with the responsibility of seeding and setting up similar PET waste recycling ecosystems in their geographies.
They will do what Mr Chauhan did in Mumbai — establish such ecosystems, buy scrap from rag pickers through an elaborate distribution chain, identify users for the scrap, and gradually pull out once a self-sustaining cycle has kicked-in. Like Mr Chauhan does now, they too will continue to oversee this ecosystem ensuring it works smoothly.
The total organised bottled water market is estimated to be about `3,000 crore and is growing at 30% annually. Bisleri has a 60% market share. It’s a `10,000-crore market, including the unorganised sector.
“Of course, there are other competitors (who also generate PET waste). But as the largest corporate player, the responsibility rested with us,” says Mr Chauhan. Bisleri encourages rag pickers to pick up any PET bottles, including that of competitors.
PET waste can be recycled into carpets, car parts, fabrics, Fiberfil (for products like pillows and jackets), and also for roads where the recycled plastic is mixed with asphalt. The PET powder enhances the bonding ability of asphalt which strengthens the roads.
Stitching together a partnership with rag pickers wasn’t easy. They are a close-knit community that’s driven by trust and fear. Each rag picker has his turf marked out and no one ventures outside it without the leader’s permission. And if one of the members violates the unwritten code, the whole fraternity disowns him or her.
To begin with, a couple of Bisleri employees gingerly made contact with a few rag pickers in Dharavi. “We requested them to help us clean up the environment by working out a profitable model for them. We spent hours explaining everything,” says Ms Joyce Fernandes, a senior Bisleri executive closely associated with the entire project.
Mr Chauhan, who once built iconic brands like Goldspot, Thums Up, Limca and Maaza (he sold these to Coca-Cola in 1993) then roped in the Indian Education Society’s management and research centre’s student body called RHYTHM. It studied 56 rag pickers and 38 scrap dealers (bhangarwallas ) and found that the rag-picking community chose PVC waste over PET. The former was easier to recycle and re-mould. PET scrap, on the other hand, had no buyers.