Recycling temple waste along the Ganges with Help Us Green

Ankit Agarwal ? winner of the UN Young Leaders Award 2018 and nominated for the Goalkeepers Awards by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation ? on recycling temple waste along the Ganges, and now, the world′s first biodegradable thermocol and leather from blooms

In May 2017, I chanced upon Help Us Green′s website and was intrigued to learn how marigold, lilies and roses, fished out from the Ganges, can be transformed into chemical-free incense sticks and vermicompost. I shot off an email to founder-CEO, Ankit Agarwal, who was then busy testing new products in his Kanpur lab. Since setting up the organisation in 2015, he has pioneered the flowercycling technology: upcycling over 8.4 tonnes of floral waste collected daily from temples and mosques in Uttar Pradesh. Many months and phone calls later, I still could not get a hold of him. I learnt he was busy presenting proposals at start-up summits.

Cut to February this year, when the 29-year-old made it to the Forbes 30-under-30 2018 list, giving me another shot at an interview. But it was another six months before I heard from the elusive entrepreneur. To my relief, I realised he was neither forgetful nor was he evading me; he was just too busy working on answers to the zero-waste / no plastic maze.

What is brewing in their lab is a breakthrough technology not just for India, but the world. With the European Union set to ban single-use plastics and the world finding sustainable alternatives to our plastic-obsessed packaging industry (think Swiggy, Amazon), their findings could not have come at a better time. Florafoam is the world′s first-ever biodegradable thermocol.

Green packaging

Developed by a team of IIT engineers, the material ? created from temple and agricultural waste, and 27% cheaper than thermocol ? is high-performing, mouldable and durable. It all started when Agarwal noticed a natural coating on a pile of unused flowers by the Ganges. "It looked like a spider′s web. Multiple tests later, we realised it was a fibre and this gave us the idea to create a multi-purpose natural material," he says.

Florafoam will soon be used to package electronic goods such as air conditioners and TV sets. "Based on our in-house tests, it is biodegradable and can be buried in your garden post usage. We are now setting up our first production unit (to make 11 tonnes a day) in Kanpur and it will be operational next January," says the winner of the UN Young Leaders Award 2018, who will be picking up the award in New York this weekend. "Until then, we will be working on samples for our buyers, and expanding units to Varanasi and Vrindavan."

October shines bright

But it is not just Florafoam that has kept this social enterprise on my radar. Come October 1, three new products will be added to their existing range, Phool, which currently comprises jasmine, nargis and tulsi incense sticks, cones and vermicost with neem extracts. Keeping up with the DIY culture, the 14-member team wants you to learn flowercycling at home. A DIY incense making kit will come with both the recipe and ingredients. Available in three variants ? tulsi, rose and lemongrass ? the child-friendly kit is priced at ?295. Also on the list are five grow kits (diabetic-friendly, Indian herb, Italian herb, Indian medicinal and a mosquito repellent option), which will come with three herb pots and vermicompost (?255 each). A premium range of Ayurvedic incense sticks made with plant resins, berries and barks of medicinal trees (targetted at calming specific doshas) complete the range. Wrapped in seed paper, a pack of 20 sticks will cost 350.

From charcoal-free incense to biodegradable packaging, Agarwal explains how the company has a multi-issue approach. "Our priority is not just cleaning the Ganges, but also empowering local women." He employs 79 women at his production unit and aims to bring the number up to 5,000 by 2022. "Every year, over 8 million tonnes of flowers are showered on deities in temples and mosques in India. Once discarded in our rivers, the toxic chemicals (arsenic, lead and cadmium) used to grow them make the water highly poisonous." To ensure these chemicals do not leach into their products, the flowers are sorted, cleaned and sprayed with biological culture. "The water used is saved and utilised to make vermicompost," says the founder, who recently received a grant funding from DBS, Singapore, among others.

Leather from flowers

Are people sceptical about using products made with flowers offered to deities? Agarwal clarifies that this, in fact, has worked in their favour. "Since the flowers are fished out of the Ganges and have been in places of worship, people are drawn to the ?holy′ factor," he says, adding, "When we started three years ago, it was a simple exercise to make use of the enormous temple waste generated in our region. But today it has become a movement of sorts: we have many people experimenting in their own cities and working on replicating our model. It′s a time-consuming process but we are glad it has started a dialogue on the issue."

Taking this dialogue forward is their vegan leather variant. Giving options made from cork and fruits a run for their money is their version entirely made from flower waste. "Breathable, with a high tensile strength, it can be moulded and dyed in numerous shades," says Agarwal. The plan, he says, is to manufacture hides to be used by luxury fashion houses and leather goods craftsmen in India and abroad. "Vegan leather is a rising movement and, at present, there are not many sustainable alternatives to leather. We are in talks with a few high-fashion brands abroad and see great potential for bio-leather in the country," he concludes.

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