As a mum, entrepreneur Monisha Narke started becoming environmentally concerned when she noticed its impact on her child about ten years back. “My daughter would constantly get coughing fits and I started becoming very worried. She was only four years old at the time and I did not want to put her on any kind of medication. Instead, I wanted to fix the problem once and for all,” recalls the 45-year-old.
Knowing that air pollution and at times, allergens are the primary reasons for coughing bouts, the concerned mother began reading up on both. She realised that out of the many contributors, the problem of dumping and burning garbage could be fixed at home fronts.
“Burning of garbage leads to emission of greenhouse gases and an increase in the levels of particulate matter in the air which is a big hazard to people’s health. This, I realised, could definitely be managed and I knew that change must start at home,” she says.
Thus, at home, she diligently started segregating her waste and learnt how to prepare compost by getting in touch with people/organisations offering such knowledge and those who were practicing it.
“Turns out, I could grow a muskmelon in my very own window grill from my first compost! I was excited to see the magic of nature. It then struck me that if recycling such little waste at home can give such massive gains, imagine what the results if recycling was adopted by several households,” says an excited Monisha.
She then spoke to a group of moms from her daughter’s school and they too echoed similar concerns. All these moms joined hands and formed a volunteer group in mid-2009 called, RUR or ‘Are you Reducing, Reusing, Recycling?’
In these 10 years of operations, the impact has been tremendous. RUR recycles over 750 tonnes of waste annually, mitigating over 80 tonnes of CO2 annually, informs Monisha.
They have educated over 30 lakh people through their workshops and set up their bio-composters in about 100 sites and sold over 200+ units!
From a Volunteer’s Initiative to a Social Enterprise
RUR members explored all avenues to take their crusade against environmental pollution to people. They routinely conducted eco-bazaars, eco-awareness workshops on composting and other green practices that one could adopt at home. They would also look at how waste was being managed in the city and would inspect landfill sites.
One such site was Asia’s largest dumping ground situated in Mumbai – the Deonar landfill. “Trekking up the piles of waste, I realised that we needed simple, innovative, attractive solutions to recycle biodegradable waste at source to reduce the waste being dumped,” she says.
Thus in 2010, Monisha decided to convert her awareness initiative into a social enterprise and founded RUR Greenlife in 2010. Under this, she started working on decentralised and sustainable waste management solutions. Her group members happily continue to associate as volunteers once in a while with Monisha’s company.
The enterprise started conducting awareness and waste management workshops in housing communities, schools, and offices in Mumbai.
They also collaborated with Tetra Pak India and launched the, ‘Go Green with Tetra Pak’. Under this flagship program, RUR set up collection centres out of major retail stores across Mumbai like Sahakari Bhandar and Reliance Fresh, where one could drop off their used Tetra Pak cartons. These cartons are later recycled into composite sheets which are again transformed into useful products like school desks, garden benches, pen stands, coasters, trays among others.
Additionally, she innovated aerobic bio-composters that they designed and developed in-house which were later set up in individual homes, housing communities, offices, and other institutions.
Engineer, Mum and Eco-warrior
Since childhood, Monisha always wanted to become an engineer. “My father was an engineer-entrepreneur running his own company and my brother too was an engineer. I would often visit my father’s factory and learn about how different machines worked. I was so fascinated and inspired,” recalls Monisha.
In 1992, she joined Veermata Jijabai Technological Institute (VJTI) in Mumbai to pursue Bachelor degree in Engineering in Electronics. After getting her degree in 1996, she decided to get a Master’s in Industrial Engineering and Engineering Management from Stanford University in the US.
In 1998, she landed a job in Sun Microsystem, an IT company based out of California in Supply Chain Management and worked there for two years.
Thereafter, she returned to Mumbai and joined Klenzaids Contamination Controls, a company her father founded in 1979. This company produced equipment for other companies in the pharmaceutical and biotech sector. Here, Monisha was responsible for managing the technology development sector. Once she had fully immersed herself in RUR’s activities, she left her job and worked to take RUR’s operations and reach farther.
‘Cartons Le Aao, Classroom Banao’
When Monisha first decided to start operations for RUR after it was re-invented as a social enterprise, she knew this was something she couldn’t do alone. So, she started out by hiring two people, one responsible for managing different projects that came their way and the other who would help her with product design.
Her team also helped her with conducting workshops for corporates, educational institutions, and housing complexes. This was a crucial source of revenue for her at the time.
During this time, Monisha did a lot of groundwork to understand how recycling worked at large and visited a lot of conferences to connect with people working in this sector. She also conducted research on different kinds of recycling units and was particularly intrigued by how Tetra Pak cartons were recycled.
“I learnt about how recycled Tetra Pak cartons could be recycled to produce composite sheets. These composite sheets I found were used to make the seats inside autos and could be used in many other ways,” she recalls
To quell her curiosity, she decided to visit a recycling facility in Vapi that recycled these Tetra Pak cartons. She met the Tetra Pak team there and realised that they were keen on scaling up recycling of their cartons. Their objectives aligned – to reduce climate impact.
This chance discussion and a vision to maximise recycling led to a unique collaboration. “We realised that one way to spread awareness about the recyclability of Tetra Pak cartons was to set up collection centres that were frequented by people. ‘Go Green with Tetra Pak’ program was launched in 2010 and it is a collaborative partnership with Tetra Pak, RUR Greenlife, Sahakari Bhandar and Reliance Fresh,” she says.
In Mumbai, they currently have 44 such public collection centres at stores and 180 private collection centres in societies, schools, offices and other institutions. They have also set up five such centres at Reliance Fresh stores in Pune. Once these cartons are sent to the recycling units and converted to composite sheets, RUR buys back some of it depending on their requirement.
In their Umbergaon facility in Gujarat, these sheets are converted into small products like pen stands, coasters, photo frames and even benches!
In 2012, under the ‘Go Green with Tetra Pak’, the ‘Cartons Le Aao, Classroom Banao’ campaign was launched where used Tetra Pak cartons were recycled to make benches which would be donated in government schools.
Similarly, they also launched the ‘Bin Se Bench Tak’ campaign that used the same composite sheets to make garden benches. This initiative has gained a lot of momentum and its popularity among the masses helped the collaborative donate about 150+ garden benches and 260+ school desks until now.
One of these schools was the Supari Tank Municipal School in Bandra, Mumbai. Madhuri Francis D’Souza, the Headmaster at the school, informs that they received 10 desks in 2018.
The 54-year-old says that seeing what recycling Tetra Paks can do, the children have been driven to be more active in the collection drives. “The children were so driven and inspired. Each student makes sure they get at least one or two used Tetra Pak cartons. The children’s mindsets have completely changed from the awareness they created,” she says.
We Drive Change Together
An Engineer and innovator at heart, Monisha also wanted to develop a bio-composter and worked on perfecting it from 2014 to 2016.
“From my own experience with composting, I knew what issues people were facing. The conventional systems that are available right now are labour intensive, messy and generate a lot of odour. I realised people needed technology that was easy to use,” she says
RUR launched their first model of the bio-composter in 2016 and has been certified by Indian Green Building Council and the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII). The Aerobic RUR Greengold Bio-composter (RGGC), as it is called, composts biodegradable wet kitchen waste between 800 gms per day to 200 kg per day with the XS, S, M, L models that it is available.
The RGGC-XS model costs about Rs. 15,000 while the RGGC-L model costs Rs. 62,000 per unit. They currently have it installed in 100 sites and offer annual maintenance services as well.
Rukimini Datta, 46, a Mumbai based social service sector consultant, has RUR’s bio-composter systems installed in her apartment complex. There are about 21 households living in the complex and they have been using that since October last year.
“People think that there must be an immediate problem at hand to take action and maybe that is why people don’t proactively care about environmental issues. But, I am happy that RUR has been able to bring awareness about composting,” says the believer of a zero-waste lifestyle.
The compost they generate is used for gardening in their complex and is also used by home-owners with green fingers.
Overcoming Hurdles for a Greener Future
Monisha believes that to power through a busy day, one needs to keep fit and start their day on an energetic note. So, she plays tennis every morning, after which she eats a sumptuous breakfast and prepares her kids’ lunchboxes.
She then plans the agenda for the day and prioritises tasks for herself and her team. On some days, she visits the composting sites or conducts workshops to raise awareness. She also regularly visits the factory to oversee the operations.
However, it hasn’t been a bed of roses for the entrepreneur and she has faced her own set of challenges.
“People do not realise that even if municipal bodies collect your waste, you cannot be sure that the waste is easily disposed of. But since, since waste is collected right at their doorstep it’s sort of an easy way out for them to centralised waste management model. They don’t want to go that extra mile to manage their own waste,” she explains.
But to tackle this challenge, Monisha formed a troop of ‘green champions’, who are basically people she meets through her workshops “They raise awareness on issues like the importance of segregating your waste, reusing, composting and recycling,” she says.
She also has a few words to offer advice to owners of small businesses.
“Small businesses can play a pivotal role in protecting our planet. It’s important to imbibe sustainable practices in business practices. Look at eco-packaging for example to ensure minimal carbon footprint. Founders can also encourage their employees to become eco-conscious and minimise waste. Grow green plants in and around their offices and start segregation of waste and its management in their offices,” she says.
So, after an impactful decade what lies in store for RUR?
Monisha informs that they are currently working on designing and developing a model for large scale composting. They are also working on harnessing technology to make it easier for citizens to compost at source to minimise waste.
“Our vision is to be a one-stop solution for decentralised waste management solutions. We want to have over 200 composting projects across India to mitigate waste from going into landfills. We hope the compost produced is used to increase green cover and improve air quality in cities. We are keen to develop environmental solutions through our projects,” says Monisha signing off.
*An entrepreneur you admire.
Ans: Nina Lekhi, founder of Baggit
*New tech that can transform the future of small businesses
Ans: Data Analytics
*One value that can help small businesses thrive
*Your favourite book
Ans: Siddhartha by Herman Hesse
*In my free time I ____…
Ans: Play tennis, swim, practice yoga, do gardening, and trek
* Before this interview I was ____…
*Something they don’t teach in college but is important to run a business is
*One question I always ask people while hiring is ____…
Ans: The three green practices they follow in their lives
*Best advice you ever got is to ____…
Ans: “Trivia maketh the masterpiece,” meaning look into minute details
(Edited by Saiqua Sultan)