How we turn waste into quality products through upcycling

Making quality products in India by turning waste into new items. That’s the ambition of the start-up IWAS. This Belgian-Indian joint venture aims to recycle over 100,000 bottles every year, including into drinking glasses, candles and candle jars. Through this upcycling process, IWAS is committed to making a positive impact on the environment. Local businesses and communities also benefit from sustainable and profitable support. “IWAS is not a charitable cause, it‘s a next-generation cooperation programme.” 

The goal was to set up a project that is economically viable, with Belgian and Indian investors, and one that will eventually be fully run in India. The idea was born when entrepreneur Dries Moens was in India and was put in contact through friends and professional partners with two local and creative entrepreneurs – Mikhail Solanki and his partner Rhea from Goa. They were in charge of the company Meso Design LLC, which was producing drinking glasses from used beer bottles: they sold these under the name ‘Bôtl’. However, their production volume was too low and the price too high. So the couple was about to close this business.

With the local partners Maurice Britto and Dale Menezes, Dries Moens decided to invest in the Indian company. “It would have been a real shame to have allowed this initiative to fail. The price of the products was too high due to an insufficient volume: this is what commonly happens to artisanal products,” said Dries Moens. “To make the project economically viable, we had to convert the process into an industrial environment. If volumes increase, the price can be reduced. We will invest in the company until it becomes profitable and is able to operate with its own resources. So we want to help the local community.”

Development cooperation 2.0

IWAS clearly states that it is not a charitable cause. Keywords for the company are quality, competitively priced and economically viable. “We aim to offer high-quality and sustainable products, according to a well thought-out economic model,” said Dries Moens. “Our aim isn’t to make money, but to find partners who want to get involved in this adventure with IWAS. If we can provide operating capital and the required know-how, the company will succeed in flying by itself in India after a certain time. We could call this a development cooperation 2.0 programme. We are now also looking at other upcycling initiatives that could be industrialised. We are assessing the possibilities of moving into other products and countries that are experiencing the same issues.”

The name IWAS evokes the products’ history: “I was (IWAS) useless and I used to pollute, but today I’m useful.” IWAS products are made from waste and turned into useful items through an upcycling process. For the moment, the company’s range includes candles, candle jars and drinking glasses. These are made from used bottles of wine, beer or cold drinks.

Upgrading 100,000 bottles a year

India is really struggling with the pollution problem. For now, there is little in the way of infrastructure to process waste, so much of it ends up in the street and ultimately in the oceans. This was where IWAS saw an opportunity. Upcycling means turning a product or material into a new product with a higher quality as well as greater sustainability. Recycling is different from upcycling, because in recycling the waste is processed into a raw material. With upcycling, just the work is added, so there is no need for another energy source: this makes the process economically viable and better for the environment. IWAS hopes to save 100,000 bottles a year from entering the environment. “This is one of the first initiatives where a product that has undergone a quality upgrade is economically profitable and affordable.”

About IWAS

IWAS turns waste into quality and affordable products. The company, which was only recently formed, is eager to raise public awareness about the problems of waste and the environment.

Dries Moens, Maurice Britto and Dale Menezes are the three partners who created the IWAS platform. The Belgian non-profit ‘IWAS Products Belgium’ handles the distribution of IWAS products. The company ‘IWASabottle’, based in India and run by Meso Design LLP, looks after the waste processing that creates the new products – drinking glasses, candles and candle jars. A 70% share of the company IWASabottle in India is held by Meso Design LLC. The three partners in the company IWAS Products Belgium hold a 30% share. Their goal is to develop similar initiatives in the long term, such as ‘IWASatyre’ (vehicle tyres). Ultimately, it is hoped that the company IWASabottle in India will become profitable, thus enabling IWAS Products Belgium to support new projects.

Upcycling: turning the tide

It’s 2019 and pretty much everyone knows what recycling means. It’s a durable attempt to reduce the amount of waste that enters the environment: products are rendered reusable. But have you heard of upcycling?

Upcycling is taking recycling one step further: it’s turning a product that has reached the end of its useful life – or so it seemed – into a totally new product, often a product of even better quality, or one that’s even more useful than the original product. It’s the opposite of downcycling (which is what happens when recycling turns a product into an inferior product) and according to us, it’s a beautiful way to contribute to a cleaner environment.

Why do we need to upcycle?

Our company, IWAS, is a platform that supports upcycling initiatives. One of our projects is in India, where our main activity is upcycling waste, specifically glass bottles, into lovely products. India could definitely use our help: the country has a tremendous waste problem. Just recently, the 11th of June 2019, it was all over the news: India has a huge “waste mountain”, and that’s more literal than you would think. According to RT, the Ghazipur landfill is the size of 40 football fields and it’s more than 65 metres high (that’s 213 feet). At this rate, it will be taller than the Taj Mahal by 2020. India’s Supreme Court claimed that warning lights will have to be put in place to alert airplanes flying by. It’s hard to think of a clearer example of how urgent this problem is: it’s a literal mountain, but with methane gas fires and black toxic liquids oozing into a local canal. People living nearby have difficulty breathing and stomach problems. It’s unsafe to live within a radius of five kilometers (three miles). A quick Google search of“Ghazipur garbage” is quite confronting, if you want to see for yourself.

However, the rate of plastic consumption is lower than you would expect: it’s at 11 kilograms per capita per year. Western Europe has a plastic consumption per capita that’s 9 times higher. However, the biggest problem is garbage disposal and the fact that people rarely recycle, let alone upcycle. Initiatives like IWAS are essential to turn the tide.

The IWAS mission

Our goal is ambitious, but sorely needed: we want to save one hundred thousand bottles every year. We make sure that they don’t end up littering the environment (on a landfill like the one in Ghazipur or broken to pieces on the beach) and we upcycle them in an eco-friendly way. Much too often, recycling costs a lot of energy and ends up producing a lot of pollution. Our production relies on a lot of manual labour and artisanal work and our machinery is used minimally and as green as possible. We work together with the community to clean up the streets, the forests and the beaches.

We transform soda bottles into colorful tea light holders, champagne bottles into perfumed candles, beer bottles into drinking glasses, … We upcycle to make the world a neater place. We do it because we respect our planet and because we want to help the local community thrive in a cleaner environment. Discover our products in our webshop!

COVID-19: The Upcycler’s Perspective

“None are more hopelessly enslaved than those who falsely believe they are free.” -Johann Wolfgang Von

Life has a funny way of creeping up on us when we least expect it. Remember 2019? when we were planning vacations, weddings and all those wonderful New Years resolutions to mark the start of “the new you” for the new decade. Convinced that this time we’d actually stick to our resolutions at least till the end the of the year. Little did we know what was actually in store for us.

How about an unprecedented global health crisis and a worldwide economic slam-dunk that brought all our wonderful goals, plans, resolutions and basic daily life as we knew it to a screeching halt. 

THE CORONA VIRUS PANDEMIC

Suddenly the whole world became a post-apocalyptic landscape with abandoned streets and police checkpoints at every junction. People in gloves and masks scurrying around to stock up on food, supplies and toilet paper of course. And dooms-day theorists going, “yup! this is it guys,” as though the daily news wasn’t dreadful enough already. 

No doubt, 2020 has been a scary, if not an exceedingly difficult time for a lot of us. Over-and-above those who were directly affected by the virus, the crash in the market lead to the demise of many small businesses and un-employment for millions of minimum wage workers who travelled a wretched journey from cities back to their villages. All the while, the rest of us locked up at home, unable to unite with friends and family and no clue on how and when things would let up and what that would even look like. 

For the first time in history, the world was physically switched off and virtually tuned in. Netflix parties and zoom meetings are trending. People on the go suddenly found themselves with the unfamiliar luxury of time to explore new hobbies and ways to keep life interesting to avoid death by lockdown lethargy, let alone a virus. 

And finally, the earth had a chance to heal. 

A CRISIS OR A WAKEUP CALL

This was one of many forwards circulating on instagram highlighting and celebrating the positive effects of the pandemic on the environment. We could finally catch a glimpse of the magnitude of the environmental impact of human activity including industries, transportation and air travel as global air pollution levels dropped drastically after just 2 months of a pause. 

New York; Just the daily traffic of the commute to work and back accounts for 50% of their Co2 emissions. Venice; Aquatic life, such as jellyfish are now visible as the water canals clear up. India; As the smog in the air lifts, the villagers of UP and Bihar joyfully witness the majestic sight of the Himalayan mountain range which was never visible due to the growing haze, ever since the first automobile or airplane.

On one hand a global economic crisis and on the other a global ecological dream come true. So, where does this leave us? Climate change activists around the world are screaming warnings of a carbon budget that gives us maybe 10 more years at our current pace before we are faced with more devastating global ecological issues, the likes of which we cannot even imagine. Extreme heat, floods, drought and poverty will make the COVID-19 pandemic seem like a small bump in the road. Is that what it would take to start moving towards a cleaner, greener and a more sustainable economy? Or would it be too late by then? Can this be our wakeup call? 

IWAS PRODUCTS IN LOCKDOWN

As upcyclers, sure, we create quality products out of seemingly useless materials. But, what we really do, is we see opportunity in crisis situations. Where everyone else sees a problem, we see solutions. And we do this in a pretty radical way, if that’s not obvious enough. As being reliant on Goa’s tourists for its supply of raw materials such as wine and beer bottles, the business had to shut down for almost 2 months, with the unquestionable responsibility of looking after our labour-force with minimum wages, rations and medical assistance. IWAS Products, a company that’s deeply rooted in its ethical and ecological policies took a serious hit during this time as well. But it was the upcycler’s perspective that dodged its bitter end. The time we had on our hands was an opportunity for us to re-vamp our processes and scale-up production 10 fold. We had our game face on. Thanks to our diligent and committed team in India and Belgium and a clientele who supported the cause by buying Upcycled glassware, candles, and other products even during an economic crisis. Because of you, IWAS has risen out of the ashes like a phoenix through this pandemic and we are so grateful.

THE AFTERMATH

We know, not all businesses have shared the same fate. After nearly months in lockdown, the global economic crisis continues to affect the lives and livelihood of many. With no vaccine in sight, the world is now in this precarious position where the only option is to turn a blind eye to the existence of a lethal virus amongst us and resume our economic duties, while taking precautions and keeping our fingers crossed. That being said, the question is, whose running the show? Our planet? Our humanity? Or the economy? 

“The climate- and ecological crisis can no longer be solved within today’s political and economic systems. That’s not an opinion. It’s just simple maths.” – Greta Thunberg