A couple from New Delhi, Anita and Shaleb Ahuja, founded the Conserve organization in 2003 to tackle recycling and waste management in their city. This NGO started out collecting and sorting waste from 500 households around the city and soon realised that plastic bags far outnumbered any other waste product. "Plastic bags offer undoubted convenience but are an unnecessary environmental nuisance and have a dismal record of causing suffering both, to humans and animals. Hopefully one day, the need for these would no longer be felt. But, until then, all efforts have to be made to ensure that these usual eyesores are collected from the garbage dumps and recycled appropriately." The Ahujas soon found a way to recycle the plastic bags appropriately when a designer friend, Nandita Shaunik, asked for some of the collected plastic to make handbags. The first examples proved so popular that Conserve is now running a 'highly successful enterprise, employing 300 people and with a turnover of around $150,000.' Conserve employs rag-pickers to collect and sort the plastic bags into colour groups. They are then molded into thick sheets with a heat press and sewn together into handbags by skilled labourers. Gita Pande is one of the women working for Conserve: "Lots of women come to me and say they also want to work here. I don't want to travel out of a slum to work I feel safe here, so I don't mind working here. I'm also doing something that's useful. Polythene bags clog our drains. Cows eat them and get choked. By making them into bags, they get used, and unemployed people get jobs. I feel it's good for the municipality as well, because we are taking the garbage off the streets, and they don't have to clean them." As well as setting up workshops in the slums Conserve has also created a 'showroom in industrial east Delhi, complete with its own workshop so customers can see how the bags are made.'
The most important benefit about the success of the bags is that it provides funding for the NGO so it can develop its work in the communities around Delhi. Anita Ahuja says "I believe every NGO should have one market-driven project. Being completely dependent on outside funding is very difficult, always having to go to donors and sell them the project. Often they're only interested in numbers. You want to do a project for, say, 800 households, and they won't fund it unless you expand it to 1,500, but you can only do it properly for 800." Conserve is already starting to expand the plastic bag project into other products such as shoes and jewellery. They are also giving advice to other NGOs around the world about how to set up similar projects.
The Ahujas have been trying to get the process of making the bags registered as a craft, but Mr Ahuja explained that the Indian Ministry of Culture refuses to recognise a craft "if it's not 500 years old. It is absolutely frustrating." TreeHugger is also frustrated as it hasn't been able to find a supplier for these bags on the internet, or anywhere else in fact, but as soon as we do we'll update this post with the information. UPDATE: Conserve does have a fledgling website where you'll be able to find information on where to buy their bags very soon. Thanks to tippster Kate. Via: BBC News and High Commision of India.