We all talk about recycling and helping the environment. But only those who are actively trying to do it have an idea about the challenges it involves. Ask Sachin Sharma, founder and director of GEM Enviro Management Pvt. Ltd and he would be quick to agree that some of the challenges are unprecedented.
“Back in 2012, I was working with fund manager IFCI Venture Capital Funds, which had invested in a company called Ganesha Ecosphere that recycled PET bottles. That was the first time I realized that Ganesha Ecosphere was faced challenges getting raw materials, that is the PET bottles, for recycling," says Sharma.
When he started to do a deep dive into the issue, he realized some of the inefficiencies in the PET value chain. While there was a demand for PET bottle recycling, most of bottles ended up in landfills and ruined the environment. The companies recycling these bottles, on the other hand, were not getting enough good quality bottles. Sharma discussed the gap in the value chain with his friend and serial investor, Dinesh Pareekh, and they finally incorporated their own company – GEM Enviro Management in 2013.
Preparing for a new life
Sharma’s decision to quit corporate life after 10 years was well thought out. There was a lot of work that was required – research, strategy planning and understanding the long-term prospects of this sector. The primary research included discussions with people in this industry such as rag-pickers, scrap dealers and recyclers, and visiting their facilities to understand the processes.
Currently, Delhi-based GEM Enviro Management handles the entire plastic value chain. They collect plastic waste from various sources such as rag-pickers, scrap dealers, hotels, municipal waste dumps and factories, and turn it over to individual recyclers. Then the company takes the final recycled merchandise, which ranges from t-shirts to laptop bags, and sells it to corporates, who use these products internally or as corporate gifts.
Initially, GEM started PET collection from manufacturing units of large beverage companies such as Coca-Cola. They were able to provide full value to beverage companies from collection and recycling to recycled merchandise.
Before GEM Enviro got involved , most of these companies didn’t have any formal waste disposal process. They would just sell their waste products to local scrap dealers.
However, in spite of the commitment and unique value proposition GEM Enviro offered, it was difficult to convince large beverage companies to provide waste to GEM because the concept was new five years ago.
“We initially thought beverage and consumer companies would welcome our idea of collecting and recycling their waste in an organized way. But when approached them, we realized that these companies didn’t want any change in their existing systems, because they were not even aware of how this plastic waste was affecting the environment. It took us around a year, and a lot of awareness building, to get our first client, Coca-Cola, on board," explains Sharma.
The other challenge was in terms of hiring competent people who could work with rag-pickers and scrap dealers.
“Most people said good things about the environment—how they wanted to help decrease pollution, how they wanted to make a change. But we found that there were not many people who were willing to work with rag-pickers. Their complaints would include things like we would need to visit slums, they are dirty, or their houses are smelly," says Sharma. The duo started hiring from the non-profit sector, where they could find good people who were willing to work with rag-pickers. And finally the team of over 70 was built.
Plans for the future
Sharma and Pareekh are quite hopeful about the future now. Their biggest investment was the bailing machines for bottle compression. They send the raw material to an agency, which turns it into recycled polyester staple fiber. The fibre goes to another agency, or to small-scale entrepreneurs, who turn it into bags and t-shirts.
Neither of these steps require any more investments from the team, making it easier for them to focus on expansion.
Presently, GEM Enviro Management collects over 3,000 PET bottles in a month, and over 1,000 other kinds of plastic, including the packaging for chips and instant noodles.
They plan to continue working with local governments and pollution boards as well as organizations to manage plastic packaging waste in a sustainable way.
Solutions from Waste profiles startups that have created businesses or products from discarded materials.