Indian plastic solution rePurpose uses offsets to remove plastic from landfills and reuse it, helping the environment and creating jobs to fight poverty in India

For the founders of rePurpose Global, the enormity — and the importance — of the problem they were confronting crystalised on a visit to Deonar, one of the world’s largest landfills, in Mumbai, India.

“We realised we were standing between mountains of plastic on one side, with waste pickers who are literally on top of those trash heaps sorting out recyclable and valuable wastes, and on the other side, you’ve got this massive booming urban skyline of India’s financial capital,” recalls Peter Wang Hjemdahl, the founder of rePurpose Global.

In the same field of vision, they could see both the glass towers full of white-collar workers whose consumption was creating the waste, and the people trying to scratch out a living from it. “That contrast was really what drove us to action, trying to bridge these two worlds,” Peter says.

Peter and his co-founders, Svanika Balasubramanian and Aditya Siroya, were working on an undergraduate project at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania. They’d been tasked with a student case competition: How do you go about doubling the income of 10 million people living in extreme poverty in urban slums across the world?

“And that’s where we got curious and actually dug deep and found out that waste picking was one of the most prevalent employment opportunities in and among the urban poor today,” Peter says. “Hundreds of millions of informal workers engage in underground recycling on a daily basis around the world.”

On top of that, the amount of plastic waste is mind-boggling, and the damage it does is widespread and diverse. A 2018 National Geographic article on the topic puts the problem in stark terms:  The planet has 9.2 billion tons of plastic to deal with.

“Of that, more than 6.9 billion tons have become waste. And of that waste, a staggering 6.3 billion tons never made it to a recycling bin —a figure that stunned the scientists who crunched the numbers in 2017.”

Innovating with idea of carbon offsets

To address both issues, the trio of entrepreneurs came up with a proposal to create what would become rePurpose Global, a for-profit company that uses a similar principle to carbon offsets −an increase in carbon storage through land restoration used to compensate for carbon emissions that occur elsewhere– to get funding for recycling and reuse infrastructure and equipment in places like Deonar. In 2018, their proposal won the University of Pennsylvania’s President’s Innovation Prize, with $200,000 to start their own social enterprise.

© rePurpose

From left to right: Peter Wang Hjemdahl, Svanika Balasubramanian and Aditya Siroya, founders of RePurpose Global

Peter describes a gap between the growing desire to move toward sustainable consumption and the massive amount of plastic trash still being released into the environment. The idea of rePurpose Global is to bridge that gap by creating the possibility of becoming “plastic neutral” by paying to have plastic removed from the environment. One plastic credit purchased from rePurpose Global for about $50 cents is equal to one kilogram of plastic removed and eliminated from the environment —a kilo of waste that would otherwise have been destined for landfills, oceans, or incineration. 

In this way, companies and individuals can contribute to solutions while they find ways to cut their use of plastic. Peter says that the key to making this system work is making a measurable impact.

“We’re not in the business of funding work that’s already happening,” he says. “We’re in the business of changing what’s happening, building new infrastructure and systems that actually improve the status quo.”

In just three years, with two of them being under the constraints of a global pandemic, rePurpose Global has accumulated more than 200 clients who like the idea of pursuing “plastic neutrality,” including large Fortune 500 companies like Google, Colgate, and Credit Suisse. 

Retiring plastic worldwide

With the money rePurpose Global is earning, “we’re removing 14 million pounds of plastic waste from the environment every single year across 14 different projects,” Peter says. rePurpose Global is funding the purchase of trucks and sorting facilities as well as creating dignified working conditions for more than 10,000 waste workers in projects in Indonesia, Kenya, and Colombia among other places. rePurpose Global is also providing funding for research and innovations that could eliminate the use of plastic altogether.

© rePurpose

rePurpose Global was one of the finalists in the 2021 Social Innovation Tournament, sponsored by the European Investment Bank Institute to promote solutions to social and environmental problems. It’s always looking for the most efficient and least harmful ways to deal with the plastic its projects capture. Some is recycled, but most of it is “low-value” plastic like candy wrappers, plastic film and bags. Some of this is used as fuel to create power, and some is broken down into components that can be reused in other ways, as an element in concrete for example.

For Peter and his co-founders and team members, the mission remains focused on repairing the places where plastic and people meet.

“The reality is that plastic is a very intersectional environmental issue,” he says. “It’s not just about saving the turtles or sea life. It’s also one of the issues that’s intrinsically tied to extreme poverty. This is what is driving us to find solutions that address the plastic problem on a systematic level.”