In observance of Earth Day this year, we spoke to Vrinda, founder of Altereco, a Singapore-based social enterprise that retails everyday products like wallets and stationery holders made from waste materials like tyre tubes and multilayer packaging.
Prior to founding Altereco, Vrinda worked in business development, marketing and microfinance. Her microfinance company extended loans to disadvantaged women in India to fund income-generating activities like sewing or selling food.
One of Altereco’s core missions is to promote the idea of sustainable behavior and more thoughtful consumption. They work in close partnership with Society for Child Development in New Delhi, India, to provide employment for differently-abled artisans. Together, they support a circular economy through upcycling, the process by which waste materials, for example byproducts from factories, are creatively transformed into new products.
Upcycling not only prevents waste from going into landfills, but also reduces the need to extract and process raw materials. It differs from recycling as the latter involves the breaking down of waste materials before creating something new. Upcycling is arguably more environmentally sustainable than recycling; it falls under the “reuse” step of the 3Rs – Reduce, Reuse and Recycle.
Read on to learn more about the amazing work Altereco does and be inspired on your sustainability journey.
Could you share a bit about your personal story and when Altereco started?
My awareness of the solid waste problem began when I was a teen. I remember attending a photo exhibition of the conservancy workers in the municipal cooperation in Mumbai and it was extremely shocking how these workers would go down the sewers without any protective gear. They would then come out of the sewer, eat their meals and even hang out with their children. Diseases would easily spread amongst their families. From that point, a deep desire remained in me to do something about the solid waste problem.
At the beginning of 2014, I started volunteering long-term for Society for Child Development (SFCD) in New Delhi. That’s when I started thinking about different solutions to the waste problem. I started Altereco in September 2021.
Society for Child Development (SFCD) is one of Altereco’s partners. Can you share more about what it was like volunteering there?
My experience volunteering there was amazing. It is a wildly creative and chaotic space and nothing goes to waste! For example, each month, the organisation collects 15 tons of waste flower garlands from temples, and dries them to make colored powder for the Indian Festival Holi. But the threads from the garlands are not thrown; they are rolled up and saved to be used subsequently in weaving! Labels and even backings of stickers are kept because they might be useful for packaging or storing. Nothing is thrown away!
Society for Child Development started as a school for differently-abled children (children with visual or hearing impairments, or intellectual disabilities) from the slums of North Delhi. But soon their founder, Dr Madhumita Puri, realised that parents are not really interested in getting their children educated, because they wondered, “What’s the point? My kid gets educated, then what? They are better off being at home.” So a vocational training center was set up.
When SFCD started more than 30 years ago, they were cash-strapped. Up-cycling was not as widespread or known as it is today. So the idea to use waste was not from an environmental conservation perspective, but simply because they did not have money for raw materials.
What role does SFCD play now as one of your partners?
A lot of materials, for example the woven materials, and the product designs are actually developed by the organisation. But because I know what materials they work with and what is possible, I am able to share product ideas and designs with them. For example, I felt a mask case would be useful during the pandemic, so I shared a design for them to create.
Could you talk a bit more about the production process?
The actual production process is interesting because different teams do different tasks. For example a handmade bag might go through three different hands during production. Visually impaired persons might be very good with rolling because they are very accurate with the thickness. The hearing-impaired team does a lot of the stitching and color matching, and the weaving is done by individuals with intellectual disabilities. Because weaving is a repetitive process, it’s actually considered therapeutic for them. So different teams do different things to make a cohesive final product.
You mentioned the importance of “preserving traditional crafts”. Can you share more about these traditional techniques and why it is important to preserve them?
Historically, if you look at a lot of crafting techniques, they were actually created to re-purpose. Weaving is a big part of the techniques we use because you can take the tiniest bits, put them together, and create a consistent overall look where the tiny variations don’t matter as much.
The variations that do exist add a degree of charm to our products. For example, the varying grains in our tyre products make every piece unique. Or the different fabrics that we upcycle from upholstery swatch books for our laptop bags. Being able to see and feel the products also greatly adds to the appreciation of these one-of-a-kind pieces.
What I think is really important is that these traditional techniques allow us to create sustainable livelihoods. Human energy is renewable energy. We do not rely on machines or energy from fossil fuels to make our products and craft is that carrier which allows us to do that.
What is the demand for up-cycled products like in Singapore?
Upcycling has been around for a while now, so there’s definitely an appreciation and understanding. Many Singaporeans also understand the value of artisanal products and are ready to pay a much higher price for something like a folder made from hand-woven material compared to a machine-made plastic folder.
More importantly, I feel talking about the story behind what we do makes a greater impact. We make a point, for example, to include exactly what the source of material is and whether there’s more than one material used in the product tags. We are also trying some interactive things where you can scan and see a video on how the piece was made.
We try to create products which are both practical for everyday use and contemporary in design. More importantly, our products are a reminder that there is no “away” when we throw something. I want people to start a conversation about why they chose to buy upcycled and artisan-made Items.
Finally, could you share your thoughts on greenwashing*?
(*Greenwashing refers to how companies give consumers the impression that their operations, products or services are more environmentally friendly than they actually are.)
Deep down I do have an activist side. That activist side is very pained and gets very angry, honestly, when I walk into a store, or when I see large companies, who, though they may be doing the work to try to reduce emissions or take care of water sources, still push consumers to buy more and more. To think that only by selling can we grow and develop really has to change.
Written by Sheena Hong