Like many big developing-world cities, Mumbai is struggling with all the waste it generates. Increased prosperity and changing consumption habits have grown the amount of garbage it produces, and its current infrastructure isn’t coping well. The city’s dumping grounds are 130 feet high in places, and they create serious health problems for nearby residents, not to mention the people working at the sites.
Sampurn(e)arth, a start-up formed by three recent college graduates, wants cities like Mumbai to develop different types of waste management model. Rather than collect trash and centralize it at a few places, it proposes smaller, local facilities, like biogas generators and compost areas, that don’t add to the main trash pile.
“We save the dumping grounds and put up systems that are environmentally sustainable,” says Debartha Banerjee, one of the founders. “And, we generate employment that gathers in the population of informal waste pickers.”
Three years in, the entrepreneurs have signed up 60 clients, including corporate offices, housing blocks, and university campuses. For example, it now manages food waste at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, whose kitchens generate up to 900 pounds a day. The slop goes into an on-site digester that produces enough gas to cook half the campus’s food.
A big part of the project is to employ local waste pickers who usually comb through the dumps or roam the streets. Sampurn(e)arth has taken on 15 informal workers so far, giving them a full wage and improving their social status.
“Before they were inside a dump, now they are working with proper conditions,” Banerjee says. “Most importantly, they have more dignity. Waste-picking is looked down on by many people. They go from being waste pickers to waste managers.”
Sampurn(e)arth makes money by charging service fees and selling on products or dry recyclables like PET plastic. Its compost goes to local gardens, while the paper it recycles gets turned into stationary branded with corporate logos. Banerjee is looking for a balance between profit and social and environmental goals, he says.
“We felt that other initiatives are either too philanthropic, where the business part takes a backseat, or it’s too commercial and the environment isn’t taken into account. We are trying to be something in between, where we set up good business models that are also sustainable,” he says.
Sampurn(e)arth won first prize at the Global Social Venture Competition, at Berkeley’s Haas Business School, earlier this year. It now wants to find new clients and keep growing both in Mumbai and other cities. Banerjee sees two main challenges. One, to persuade people to segregate their waste before collection, so each can be used for something different. And two, entrenched interests that would rather keep Mumbai’s inefficient system the way it is (The city spends an astonishing $400 million a year currently, so the prize isn’t chicken feed).
“As there is a big budget around it, there is a lot of corruption. Waste management is mired in vested interests. There are lobbies managing the dumping grounds and transportation and doing nothing but extracting money from the ministries,” Banerjee explains.
“We haven’t encountered them yet but our decentralized [system] directly hurts the mafia that loves to take the waste and dump it. As we grow bigger, we’re trying to build our armor, so we can face those troubles as they come along.”