It had been quite a while since I wanted to meet Jabir Karat, founder of Green Worms Eco Solutions, a waste management company based in Kozhikode district of Kerala. There needs no introduction to how important responsible waste management is, in the current scenario. So when there was someone working along these lines and dealing with almost all forms of household and commercial dry waste, I took up the opportunity to have a greater understanding of the domain. Here, Jabir Karat talks about being in the business of Waste Management.
What is Green Worms?
- Green Worms is a social business with the aim to sustainably solve garbage crisis, generate income and create livelihood opportunities. The three principles we operate on are minimizing waste generation, maximizing waste recovery and dignifying people working with waste. We work with hotels and restaurants, apartments, housing colonies, hospitals, residence associations, more than 30 Gram Panchayats, 4 Municipalities, and Calicut Corporation. We also work with event organizers and weddings and exhibitions. The idea is to manage and dispose waste responsibly and sustainably without having to burn or bury it.
Private people rarely have entered into waste management initiatives in Kerala. How have you managed to sustain without a definitive successful model in our State to look up to?
- At the primary level, we charge the waste producer from whom we collect waste. At secondary level, there is revenue from the waste material itself. We have more than 120 labourers across 5 districts of Northern Kerala and have our own plastic recycling units. Plastic, according to their grade is either shredded or converted to pellets, granules, etc. Multilayered plastics and other non-recyclable plastics are shredded goes for road construction. The other pellets, granules and foams that are produced from various grades of recyclable plastics are channelized to multiple industries such as that of chair making, underground pipes, etc. We majorly deal with non biodegradable waste such as plastic, paper, glass, electronics, woodenware, thermocol, bags and even napkins and diapers. We do manage food waste, but on specific occasions. We don’t process all of these directly. We have various partners for electronic waste, sanitary waste, paper waste, etc. and even for some varieties of plastics. We ourselves process only very few materials at our end. All of our partners are private players. We have secured all the legal license required to collect, transport and process waste. We are a three and a half years old organization, but still in the struggling phase. Even though is not actually viable as of now but we are doing a business worth two crore per annum. A lot of investment needs to come in now.
I read that Green Worms had to pause their operations two times in between. What were the challenges that were faced then and the ones you continue to face?
- We don’t have many of the infrastructure facilities required to process many kinds of waste. So we as well have to depend on third parties. Even the last one week was quite difficult. We accepted a work and collected quite an amount of waste, but the third party dropped the work. That was quite a challenging situation. We have had to stop our work before as it wasn’t financially viable then. But the kind of issues we face now is due to lack of capacity or enough infrastructure. Human resource is not a big problem yet. But more of transportation facility, storage of the waste collected, etc. As I said, commercial viability was the issue back then when we had to stop the operations. I was a total service minded person then. But now there are business people supporting me. Now we operate by combining principles of business and social service. Business should come first. Then you can take the social aspects along. You have to balance it out. It requires quite a good amount of funds to be in the Waste Management business. One has to work without expecting returns for at least five years. Starting from procurement to segregation to storage, it requires manpower and infrastructure. It is not the quantity of waste you deal with, but the way you handle it that matters.
At what stage does the major expense come in? Is it collection or transportation or something else?
- Everything starting from the initial expense to collection and transportation and processing requires money, material and labour invested. Once we segregate the waste that we receive, we find that there no much items that could be recycled or marketed. You might be knowing that ragpickers and scrap-dealer communities are quite active in Kerala. So people give away items such as newspapers and cartons to them since they receive money for it. So we basically get the items that can’t be sold away directly. It is process expensive to recover such materials. The waste generators are to pay for it. But a very large public is still not willing to pay for it.
What is the actual challenge that lies here? Is it in creating awareness among people regarding proper disposal of waste or working on this particular mindset?
- It is mostly with the mindset. People in the city are not ready to spend Rs. 100 a month for responsible disposal of their waste. Whereas in the Gram Panchayats it is only Rs. 20. This is for the waste to be collected directly from their homes. Only a very small percentage of people are willing to pay. More people should realize that it is their own responsibility to dispose the waste they create. And when someone is doing that service for them, it is to be paid for. Obviously it is easier to dump it in the roadside or empty plots. Only the people who have desperately no options, such as people living in cities and apartments, etc. who realize that they cannot manage their waste themselves, that it is an issue and that it should it be disposed well, that they need service for it and that private players are required for it, are ready to pay.
I along with a few of my friends had recently done a survey in our residential area. Across 112 households, only 10 families mentioned that they give away their dry waste to Kudumbashree units (women’s self help groups in Kerala). Which accounts to 9 percentage. More than 55 percent people said they burn it. Even though only 3 percent people admitted that they dump their waste in the roadside, we all know the number is definitely much higher. So when I think about it, awareness is still a gap that we have to fill.
- When we talk about awareness initiatives, chances are that it will only last a week. It has to be a constant process that requires a separate wing. That is not going to fetch me direct income. So awareness is basically a long term investment. And for the constant engagement process it is, we need funds coming in for that. So we do awareness programmes in apartments and schools upon request.
Green Worms had 50 employees last October and when it came to January this year it is 120. Is there a conscious effort for scaling up?
- I’m not in a position to scale up at the moment. We can’t actually even retain the people we have as of now. But still we continue to move forward. To scale up, second and third level teams have to be strong enough. If I am able to build the second and third level leadership, scaling up is a possibility. The plan is definitely to create 5000 employment opportunities and build a 100 crore company in the next 10 years.
How do you see the current tie-up with Municipal Corporations and government bodies?
- When you do a business, you can’t fully depend on the Government. Tie-up with government bodies can only be seen as an additional something. The government schemes and policies keep on changing hence you shouldn’t be someone who is dependent on that. As I mentioned earlier we’ve worked with more than 30 Gram Panchayats, 4 Municipalities and Calicut Municipal Corporation and we continue to work with them on contract basis which is for a maximum of 2 years. Mostly we do specific projects with them, such as collecting dry waste on two months or three months basis, etc.
I find it is not just management of waste that Green Worms is into. You’ve even worked to prevent generation of waste.
- We’ve conducted events and weddings on green protocol. We also act as consultants to zero waste events. We have our service wing which takes care of it. The plan is to equip people interested in the idea to conduct the event by themselves. That is not our primary business. But again the trend is that people are not interested in reusables such as ceramic cutlery or steel glass. They favour disposable products. So if people are ready to think different and move towards sustainable alternatives, I can provide the solution. Whether it be a thousand steel glasses or arecanut leaf plates or banana leaves for an event, I will arrange it for them.
There are many young people out there, including myself who wants to set up their own social enterprise. Among many difficulties is convincing one’s family about it. It is always easier to take up a job and have a steady income than be an entrepreneur. How was that particular phase for you?
- I’m not a person who do things after taking consensus from family, but I tell them what I intend to do. My parents are not formally educated and for them it is all about what I believe in. It is all about me doing what I think is right and they don’t probe much into it. Like any family they expect a minimum income coming in, for sustenance. And I try to ensure that. What I’ve found is that formally educated parents have bigger expectations from their wards. My parents haven’t enforced anything on me. As far as I am happy with what I am doing, they are happy about it as well. And yes. Many of my friends and educated family members have discouraged me in taking this up.
You mentioned that one of the principles Green Worms operate on is dignifying people working with waste.
- Waste Management industry is not a very fancy subject to talk about. People often save my phone number as ‘Jabir Waste’ and not ‘Jabir Green Worms’ or something else. That’s how you’ll be known in the market. That’s how they perceive it. “His job is picking rags”. “He collects waste”. We can’t do much about it. What we do is we continue to do things that we believe in. A few may perceive things beyond the obvious. There are doctors who have told me that I deserve more respect than them since their job is to cure diseases and mine is to prevent it. So again, it is something to do with the mindset. They are the kind of people who motivates us to push ourselves further. I hope that with time, the people working in the waste management industry will receive the respect they duly deserve.
How do you see the changing trends in consumption patterns causing to create waste? Eating out, ordering in, etc. are creating more amounts of waste than how it used to be. Disposables and various other one-time use items such as plastic spoons and forks, the packing, etc. is on a high.
- There are two things associated with this. One is ‘sustainability in life’, the lifestyle of an individual and habits associated. The theoretical aspects of it is a romantic idea. But it is quite difficult to put it into practice. Probably one in ten thousand would be doing so. The second is about alternatives. Like carrying a cloth bag or a metal straw with oneself. There are juice shops which use only paper straws. There is a quite famous juice shop here in Calicut which doesn’t give straws at all. But people still go there and don’t even bother to ask for a straw. Quality of juice is what matters over there. The world is moving at a fast pace, so fast that even people who intend to consume consciously might lose track of it. Many a times it has happened that I noticed a plastic straw in the juice I ordered once it has reached me. Hence looking out for alternatives seem to be a better idea than minimizing consumption. But again the problem here is alternatives are often expensive compared to its plastic variant. In my opinion it will take another 20 to 30 years for the total ban of single use plastics to happen in India.
But cities like Mumbai and Bangalore have banned the use of single use plastics?
- That is just a misconception. Or something that they portray to the outside. In effect, the ban is only on carry bags. A lot of packaging products are still made out of plastic. But even beyond that, Plastic is a huge industry. For the very fact that plastic is a byproduct of petroleum, it is close to impossible to take it out from the Indian market.
I’ve come across quite a few articles on you and Green Worms online. Has the online reach benefitted your business?
- Yes, a few online platforms have covered our story, but we haven’t yet intentionally done any social media marketing or promotions so far. But now, there are plans for that. Currently we are managing 23 of ITC’s expired products on a pan Kerala level. So when we move to such big projects, it requires marketing and branding. And to answer your question, of course the online reach has been of use. I’ve received calls and e-mails even from places like Sikkim, Manipur and Meghalaya, which are quite far away. There are people who want to come, study and work with us. We’ve had many interns working with us that way. Media outreach definitely brings you business.
For what period do you generally take in interns?
- There are a lot of excited people reaching out to us for internship. We usually take in interns for two months period. And if they are good and we are convinced with their conviction, we offer them employment as well.
Have you observed any visible change in the attitude of people with respect to waste in the past three and a half years?
- Obviously there are people who find value in it. There are shopkeepers and households, mostly shopkeepers who actually keep the waste segregated and give us the way we ask them to. I haven’t tracked the impact in a definitive manner. It requires an altogether different team to deal with the statistics and impact analysis. That would turn out to be a completely different project as well. I haven’t yet worked on it. But one thing is that more material is coming in. Which means the number of concerned people is increasing.
How do you visualize your work from a social aspect, independent from the business aspect?
- We deal with materials that even the scrap dealers don’t deal with. We majorly recover waste materials that are either burned or buries or dumped in the landfill. There you have the health aspect of it. To put it as simple as it, we prevent these harmful materials from poisoning the air that we breathe and water that we drink. The environmental aspect is very much interlinked to this. It is a known fact that we humans are not the only one who relies on the environment. We are supporting the existence of that particular biodiversity by not letting these reach the land or the waterbodies or the air. The third aspect, as I see it is the employment opportunities this industry is creating. On an average, it takes 20 people to manage the waste in a Gram Panchayat, while a Municipality would require around 80 employees and a Municipal Corporation, 150. Kerala has 941 Gram Panchayats, 87 Municipalities and 6 Municipal Corporations. Apart from these, there are Block Panchayats and District Panchayats. So there are thirty thousand employment opportunities generated. A whole new economy is created for items that we otherwise burn or bury.
How do you the Waste Management industry operating towards problem solving in the future? Is it business aspect or the social change aspect that will have an upper hand?
- I think it would be business. What I have come to understand is that if this becomes a lucrative market, a large number of players will enter and newer economies will be created. Sustenance would be a difficult thing to achieve if one concentrates on the social change aspect alone. Because I know how I survived. So if the business runs well, social change will be achieved as an indirect impact of it. I set up my first plant with the trunk of arecanut tree for the structure and coconut leaves for the roof, keeping in mind that it should be ecofriendly and environmentally sustainable. But it got destroyed quite easily. The advantage of having a steel structure is that it will endure and there is reselling opportunity as well. I don’t want people to donate to Green Worms like it is an NGO. It is a self-sustainable model that I envision. And hence I am seeking out for investors. I’m sure I can do a business of 100 Crores if I get an investment of 10 Crores.
Green Worms Eco Solutions can be contacted at:
Mobile: 9656363513, 9656363502