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Sampurn(e)arth – from waste to wealth

The story

Away from the noise and squalor of the Maximum City; three friends were trekking on a fine Sunday morning. The thrill of climbing a mountain, the adventure of walking through a forest and the serenity of the cold breeze; all of it marred by a huge dump of garbage they spot on their way. The pile of plastic bottles, tissue papers, old newspapers and food left them disconcerted and concerned. It also catapulted them to action and laid the foundation of what would evolve as an enterprise championing environmental sustainability through efficient waste management systems – Sampurn(e)arth.

The business

As the name suggests, Sampurn(e)arth was started with a view to promote holistic waste management with a triple bottom line model – planet, people and profits.

Planet – Mumbai generates waste to the tune of approximately 7,025 tonnes per day. In a city with only 4 dumping grounds, the need for efficient waste management and recycling cannot be overemphasised. Sampurn(e)arth specializes in designing and implementing end to end decentralized waste management solutions for bulk waste generators, starting from waste audits and culminating in setting up of waste management units. A waste management unit would ideally have a biogas-plant or a composting solution to handle biodegradable waste and a dry-waste segregation unit for non-biodegradable waste, which is either sold to or processed by Sampurn(e)arth’s recycling partners. This model aims to minimize the quantity of waste reaching the dumps and landfills and move towards a zero waste situation.

People – Sampurn Earth’s operates a highly decentralized and people-powered model that generates livelihoods and empowers the invisible environmentalists – the waste pickers. Though waste pickers perform extremely valuable services for society, their contribution is ignored and unappreciated. Quick to realize that it could rescue waste pickers from deplorable working conditions and provide them with a better alterntive, Sampurn(e)arth partnered with self help groups and co-operatives of waste-pickers in partnerships with NGOs such as Stree Mukti Sangathana to award labor contracts to operate and maintain the bio gas plants.

Profit – a textbook example of turning waste into gold, Sampurn(e)arth has developed a financial model that allows them to generate revenues to support their operations and also share the return with clients. Sampurn(e)arth charges a fee for waste audits and waste-management solutions. For the dry waste that is collected and channelized to the recyclers, it in return provides the companies with recycled paper stationary. In some cases where waste is treated through vermi composting, the manure thus created is sold in the market and the proceeds are used to sustain the model.

What led Sampur(e)arth to companies?

Sampur(e)arth’s model works around bulk waste generators such as schools, colleges, townships, housing societies etc. Having being incubated and run a successful pilot on the grounds of TISS, an academic institute, Sampur(e)arth expanded its operations to cover schools and colleges in Mumbai with relative ease in the initial days. Its strategy of targeting housing societies proved to be trickier. Housing societies typically consist of multiple apartments and require a lengthy process of influencing each household’s thought process, convincing them of the merit of waste management, training the local maids and identifying volunteers who can coordinate the task. It was at this juncture that Sampur(e)arth realized the untapped potential companies offer, their natural fit to its model, the dire need to engage them with the agenda of environmental sustainability and the ease with which this could be achieved by appealing to a company’s CSR priorities.

Corporate partnerships

Sampurn(e)arth today works with companies such as Axis Bank, TCS, L&T, Lanxess, Tata Sons, Tata Power, Mahindra & Mahindra, etc offering them waste management solutions. It is the collection partner for TetraPak Company in Mumbai region.

AXIS Bank Foundation (ABF) was one of the first companies to partner with Sampurn(e)arth and still serves as the largest corporate partner, with Sampurn(e)arth covering 44 of their branch offices and aiming to reach 75 in near future.

The partnership started when ABF, scouting for an agency that offered more than then just waste collection services, was recommended Sampurn(e)arth by a NGO called Stree Mukti Sangathana that works for upliftment of women waste pickers in Mumbai. This case study borrows liberally from their experience of each other.

Benefits of partnership

Value for the corporate

The model developed by Sampurn(e)arth is unique in the way it monetizes the value from waste and returns it back to the company in form of stationary. Axis Bank Foundation (ABF) believes that this has substantially reduced their expenses on purchasing stationary. In case of bio gas plants, the fuel generated from the plant is supplied to the company, helping the company to save thousands of rupees every month in cooking fuel. This model revolves around waste and as such does not need to be accounted for in figures or in books. This makes the entire process easier and hassle free from the corporate’s perspective, substantially expediting the process. Thus, with CSR becoming mandatory, Sampurn(e)arth is able to offer companies a profitable way to perform their social and environmental responsibilities.

Operational efficiency and economies of scale for the social enterprise

For Sampurn(e)arth targeting companies and corporate parks that house multiple companies makes operational sense. Working with clusters and huge complexes gives the enterprise a chance to service a large number of corporate partners simultaneously and collect and process waste in bulk and thus drives efficiency through economies of scale. It also has a multiplier effect in terms of reaching out to and encouraging other companies to match their peers’ initiatives within the complex and thus minimizing cumulative waste. Companies also prove to be an easier sell as waste management fits neatly into their CSR mandate and because they have the resources to expend internally to ensure smooth functioning of the project.

Lessons

A leap of faith

Axis Bank Foundation struck a deal with Sampurn(e)arth in its very initial days, when it only had a successful pilot to demonstrate,  not an elaborate portfolio of clients. In partnering with Sampurn(e)arth, Axis Bank Foundation, guided by its own principles and commitment towards environment, was willing to take a calculated risk based on the pilot. The partnership, like any other, had teething problems, from mundane issues such as the garbage collection van being late to the security guard not letting it in to more serious issues such as failure to show up and faulty waste segregation.

But ABF saw merit in Sampurn(e)arth’s work and model and was willing to give them a fair chance to prove their mettle. ABF was patient and understanding enough to co-evolve the process with Sampurn(e)arth. In turn, Sampurn(e)arth toiled relentlessly and with utmost sincerity to iron out the operational issues.

Buy in from senior management and the lower tiers

Inclusion and approval from senior management is a prerequisite for any initiative. What makes waste management different and difficult is that along with senior management, it needs absolutely every employee’s cooperation. Right from the people on the floor who fill up the waste bins with shredded paper, tea and coffee cups, paper, plastic etc. to the cleaners who empty the bin to the security guard who lets the garbage van in, each and every employee has a role to play and needs to be onboard.

ABF tackled this issue with patience and skill. The head of ABF personally approached every departmental head and explained the entire waste management process. The departmental heads then trickled down the message to their managers and employees through mailers and during team meetings to ensure that all the employees. Separate training sessions were held on weekends for the housekeeping staff to train them exclusively regarding waste segregation. The challenge ABF successfully addressed was to make them realize their importance in the successful implementation of the program without giving the impression that this is going to increase an already heavy workload.

Conclusion

The collaboration between Sampurn(e)arth and Axis Bank Foundation was driven by a social enterprise promoting environmental sustainability through a creative model, a company committed to reducing its environmental footprint and a partnership based on mutual interest, trust and understanding. A testimony to its success, ABF has quoted that it has been unable to replicate this model in other cities because it has been unsuccessful in finding a partner as effective and suitable as Sampurn(e)arth.

Acknowledgement

We thank Vibha Krishnamurthi of Axis Ban Foundation and Debartha Banerjee of Sampurn(e)arth Environment Solutions Pvt. Ltd. for their time and inputs.