The alchemist of waste management: Shikha Shah is turning waste into value

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Shah shares her inspiring story that began in Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges, when she was still a young girl.

In 2008, Pixar’s animated sci-fi film Wall-E hit movie theatres across the world. It was an entertaining watch with an important message for mankind—stop littering or else, one day we might end up with mountains of trash and no humans in sight.

13 years later, although the activism on tackling the global issue of litter and waste management continues, nothing much has changed. We litter as carelessly as we continue buying plastic products. We dump garbage wherever we go—on land and in the sea—without any concern for the devastating consequences of our actions. To put things into perspective, each year, the US produces 1609 pounds (over 700kg) of waste per person, responsible for 40 percent of the world’s waste. European countries are not far behind either, with each individual generating waste every year amounting to 487kg as of 2017 according to Eurostat. Another report Plastic Waste Makers Index by Australia-based Minderoo Foundation revealed, “India generates 5.58 million tonnes of single-use plastic annually, and China produces six times more, at 25.36 million tonnes.”

That’s a lot of garbage. At this rate, Wall-E can soon become a reality, if not for us, surely for our future generations. Thankfully, we have capeless heroes amidst ourselves who are fighting to save the planet. Through their voices, initiatives, workshops and the government’s support, these people are enhancing public awareness around waste management and solving the garbage crisis of the world.

Shikha Shah is one such waste warrior who left her lucrative job to turn scrap into valuable lifestyle products. Her venture, Scrapshala, begins its work after our products end up in the dustbin. Like a potter, a blacksmith or a farmer who creates something valuable from nothing, Scrapshala upscales trash into reusable products.

In an exclusive conversation with Soulveda, Shah shares her inspiring story that began in Varanasi, a city on the banks of the Ganges, when she was still a young girl.

Where did the idea of turning scrap into lifestyle products come from?

I was born and brought up in Varanasi, and since my childhood days, my family has been waste-conscious. I remember when I was a kid, I used to play with re-purposed toys made by my mother. Later, when I was in the IIT Madras Incubation Cell, I met several entrepreneurs who were working on upcycling. It was that time when I knew what I wanted to do in life. When I came back to Varanasi, I founded Scrapshala with my mother in 2016. We aimed to breathe new life into scrap and reshape them into something valuable. Five years later, our upcycled products have reached several households, and it’s just the beginning.

Before Scrapshala, you had a good career ahead and a comfortable life. Can you tell us what motivated you to quit your job and start your own venture?

My first job was at Reliance Foundation that gave me an opportunity to work in rural areas. It was a big transition for me, from living a comfortable life to an uncomfortable one. But it taught me that when you live outside of your comfort zone, you become used to taking risks. And, when you are associated with institutions like IIT Madras, you are further exposed to the importance of taking risks. This experience made me ready for what was to come next.

From 2016 to 2021, each day was challenging. There were days when we used to receive many orders, other times, nothing. But I had faith in what we were doing. In most Indian households, you can find storerooms full of junk materials. We keep them thinking one day, they might come in handy. That’s where Scrapshala comes in. Using the help of local artisans—and Varanasi has plenty of such people—we kept moving forward to turn our dream into reality.

In India, the concepts of upcycling and waste management are still in their nascent stages. How did you conquer your fears?

I come from a Marwari family and traditionally, in our community, women are homemakers and men are breadwinners. So it was a social taboo for me when I came back to Varanasi to start my own venture. It was a big shift for my family too. I, on the other hand, didn’t have all the answers on day one—how will I make this work, who will buy the products, and so on. There was no mentor or a clear business strategy in place. This lack of clarity can confuse you and the people around you. Until we started getting orders and media attention, everything happened on its own. Government campaigns like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan or Clean India Mission created awareness around waste management, which also helped us in our journey.

What kind of work challenges did you face?

Initially, all the local artisans who joined us were carpenters or painters. When they became part of Scrapshala, everything was quite new for them. They didn’t know what we were doing or who was going to buy our products. It was a big cultural shift for them. We had to explain everything to them—what we do and how their work was adding value to someone’s life. Today, things are much better. We do workshops to educate people on upscaling and the importance of waste management. Education has been the most important key for us.

Your initiative has employed several underprivileged people as artisans. How have their lives improved after joining Scrapshala?

Earlier, when our local artisans had joined, they had basic phones. Now, they all have good smartphones, and it’s good for work also. I travel a lot because of the business, so we stay connected through social media. If they need to share a picture of a product, they can quickly do so. It’s a huge transition for them in terms of using technology, monetary benefits, but mostly, earning a dignified livelihood.

Over time, our artisans have become creative too. During the pandemic when the orders were fewer, they had time to think freely about what they wanted to make. Today, they feel happy and proud when people come to them and praise their work. Working at Scrapshala has made our artisans responsible for the safety of the environment as well. They have self-educated themselves and I’m sure even when they leave the company they will get good jobs.

How does your venture educate people on waste management?

In the first three years of operation, we used to have regular workshops in Varanasi. Then we started taking the workshops online. We also travelled to schools for events and summer programs. We used such opportunities to educate others on how to make upscaled products.

The good thing about upscaled products is that they attract attention. People want to learn about them when they see a good-looking object that would otherwise be scrap. Their curiosity helps us to share more with them. Other than workshops, we also use social media to educate people.

Waste disposal is one of the biggest environmental threats facing our planet. How can an individual contribute to protecting the environment?

During the COVID-19 pandemic when people were at home, there was a huge consumption of plastic in every household. When we reach out to people through social media and our website, many of them asked us what to do. The idea is simple. If you want to start with the most basic thing, you can start with Ecobricks that are made up of plastic waste. They are a simple solution to manage your waste. This is how it works: you fill all your plastic waste into an empty plastic bottle tightly. Keep doing this with all your waste. Once you have 30 to 40 Ecobricks, you can build structures out of them. With this, your dustbin will always remain empty. If you want to avoid using basic plastic products like a tongue cleaner or toothbrush, you can switch to eco-friendly alternatives, which are cheaper too.

Since 2020, the pandemic has been restrictive with extended lockdowns. How did this restriction impact your work?

During the pandemic, our orders were reduced drastically. But we took things in a positive way. Our artisans were skilled enough to find work in nearby villages. We used this time to interact with our customers on social media, do online workshops, and streamline our internal processes. It was a tough time for everyone, so we don’t have any complaints. Now, we are working at full force again. For Raksha Bandhan, we are making sustainable rakhis that become part of nature when they are disposed of.

What entrepreneurial lessons have you learned from your journey?

You have to embrace failures and negative emotions. Like good times, you have to cherish the bad times too. And everything happens for a reason. That’s what I have learned since the onset of the pandemic. If you have an idea, just start executing it because you will never have a foolproof plan to start with. You will figure out the steps as you move forward. For instance, we never thought that we will do workshops. We started doing it because people started asking for it.

What message would you like to give to people on the importance of waste management?

Waste management is a household procedure. If you start putting one less waste in your dustbin, I think your work is done. You don’t have to be an expert waste manager to do your part. Don’t pressurise yourself to become completely sustainable. Even if you do small things every day, it’s great. For instance, upscale the products If you are using too many plastics, that’s all.

  • Shikha Shah is the founder of Scrapshala, a brand that tackles the concept of waste management. She is an Environmental Science Post-Graduate from TERI University and is an upcycling and sustainability practitioner. She is a firm believer in gender equality and believes that nature is our greatest asset.

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