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Published 25 November 2014

Trash to treasure

‘Twenty-seven! Twenty-eight! Twenty-nine!’

A tiny girl with a big voice is leading her class in counting. She yells each number in succession; the other students yell it back to her. ‘Twenty-ten!’

In the opposite classroom, the students are learning whether one comes before or after two. Their ages range from three to ten, and while it might seem strange that ten-year-olds are still learning to count, it’s the logical starting point for kids who’ve never been in school before.

We’re in a slum near Bahadurgarh, Haryana. Around 50,000 people live here, 2,000 of them kids. And this school can reach about 100 of them at a time. It’s a ‘bridge school’ – not governmentally recognised, but designed to get some foundational learning in place with the hope that the kids can move into a government school down the track.

The school is run by Conserve India, a social enterprise seeking to provide training, skills and employment opportunities for some of India’s most disadvantaged people. When India hosted the Commonwealth Games in 2010, many of Delhi’s slum areas were demolished, and thousands of people were pushed to the furthest outskirts of the city, including here in Bahadurgarh.

Beyond the settlements of cardboard shacks squeezed together, the area feels like a bit of a wasteland – but it won’t be that way for long. It’s expected that around 7,500 factories will pop up in the next two to three years, with Bahadurgarh set to become the main hub for the production of shoes and bags in northern India. With all those factories will come a whole lot of jobs, and it’s here that Conserve is ahead of the game in ensuring that those positions will be filled by those most in need.

Conserve was founded in 1998 by artist-engineer couple Anita and Shalabh Ahuja. ‘Back then, Conserve was reliant on grants and was mostly focused on lobbying and awareness campaigns,’ shares Anita. ‘I wanted to work in the development field with people who had no skills, who couldn’t be part of mainstream industries.’

The issue of waste was a key consideration for Anita too, as she found herself burdened by the amount of rubbish found piling the streets of Delhi – and the livelihoods of the people who spent their days picking through it to survive. Eventually, she and her husband would design a process that used heat and pressure to create a durable textile from discarded plastic bags.

For the last ten years, the organisation has become more market-driven in an effort to solidify its sustainability, and now Conserve is well-known for its range of bags and home wares made from recycled materials. Scanning the sample room of their Bahadurgarh offices, I see what used to be car tyres, army blankets, and denim jeans. I see the collection featuring the signature layered colours of the reused plastic bags. There’s even the remains of a synthetic turf football field, re-purposed to adorn outdoor furniture.

‘Each recycled material comes with its own challenges,’ says Anita. ‘Fire hoses only come in limited colours!’

Some of the materials come from the waste and cutoffs from surrounding factories, but the priority is to work with ragpickers from the slums to source material – and train them to create the stylish, high-quality products that Conserve is known for. And what does Conserve do with it’s own waste?

‘We weave all the waste and make more products,’ Anita smiles. ‘You can weave anything!’

Upstairs, a handful of men are working together to assemble handbags for a bulk order. One uses a stencil to outline the seams, the next applies a strip of adhesive, and the next presses the seam. There are sewing machines chugging away in the adjacent workshop, putting in place the final touches before the bags head downstairs to be quality-checked and packaged. Each of the workers here has been trained by Conserve, equipped with the kind of skills that will position them well to find employment in one of the other factories in the growing industrial area. Many will only be at Conserve for around three months, which sounds like a fleeting stint, but in reality allows for a greater number of people to be trained and deployed.

‘The whole objective is that we are a bridge factory,’ Anita explains. ‘We want to train people from the slums in new skills and then they can go onto other factories.’

It’s not just cutting and sewing that they’re learning, either. During a three-month training program, participants are assisted in setting up a bank account and even offered a micro-loan to purchase their own equipment and set up a personal enterprise. In addition, they are trained in occupational intelligence – such as negotiating with employers or setting up a cooperative without becoming agitational. This kind of training is significant in a rapidly growing labour force, as not every factory will be as committed to the fair trade principles that characterise Conserve’s operations. It’s also significant in addressing the caste system that remains rigidly engrained in a traditional state like Haryana. Workers are learning to cooperate together in acts as simple as washing each other’s tea cups.

It’s not easy to sell things made from rubbish in a country that is plagued with waste disposal issues, so Conserve’s products are exported for international buyers. I recognise many of the bags and wallets in the sample room from what I’ve seen on the shelves of Oxfam stores back home. Even still, Anita explains that international sales are plateauing. In Australia, there is evidence that consumers are becoming increasingly familiar with the concept of fair trade, but it seems that awareness is yet to translate into sales for groups like Conserve.

Personally, I am optimistic that this will change, though perhaps not without some necessary shifts in our own engrained attitudes. But for those of you who are passionate ethical consumers, let me assure you that your dollars are wisely and effectively spent. As I’ve witnessed at Conserve, the purchase of a fair trade product reaches far beyond the pocket of the person who made it. Kids are educated. Health camps are run in the slums. Cultural divides are fading. Food security is being established (true story: check out the fantastic work of Food Ladder!). And most importantly, the loveliness of apparently unlovely things – whether a plastic bag or a person – is being conserved.



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