Start-up solutions from Bengaluru for a sustainable circular future

From reusable packaging materials to recycling batteries to refurbished products, circular economy start-ups try to find a business model that is profitable and, at the same time, kinder to the planet

August 10, 2023 09:00 am | Updated 05:39 pm IST - Bengaluru

Founders of InfinityBox Shashwat Gangwal and Keshav Godala

Founders of InfinityBox Shashwat Gangwal and Keshav Godala | Photo Credit: HINDU

Shashwat Gangwal and Keshav Godala used to order in food frequently as IIT-Kharagpur students. “The mess food wasn’t great,” Gangwal remembers. “And Swiggy and Zomato were just entering our campus.” 

While food delivery made life better for these friends, disposable plastic containers piled up on the side. The duo didn’t pay much attention to it until one day they came across the containers being burned emitting toxic fumes and exposing people to the same. 

Mr. Gangwal and Mr. Godala realised that burning or being sent to a landfill was the way such waste was dealt with most of the time. Plastic containers were rarely picked up by waste pickers as recycling them didn’t make economic sense.   

Meanwhile, the food delivery volumes were only growing, running into millions every day and producing an equivalent amount of plastic waste. 

Mr. Gangwal and Mr. Godala attempted to solve this, and the result was InfinityBox, a Bengaluru-based packaging-as-a-service start-up which offers reusable containers as an alternative option for food delivery.  

InfinityBox is one of the emerging crop of startups in Bengaluru shaping their model around circular economy.

Circular economy start-ups

The circular economy concept essentially talks about practices that encourage reuse, recycling, and refurbishing instead of disposing off resources and products.  

From reusable packaging materials to recycling batteries to refurbished kid’s products the circular economy startups try to find a business model that is profitable and, at the same time, kinder to the planet.  

“Climate change is the biggest challenge of our generation. One practical approach to it is to change production and consumption patterns and habits,” says Pratap Raju, founding partner at Climate Collective, a coalition that aims to build an ecosystem for climate entrepreneurship.

“What circular economy start-ups can do is help reduce the environmental impact of our production and consumption choices, which will not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change, but also reduce the deleterious impact our way of life has on nature and biodiversity,” he adds.

Fewer containers, lesser trashing

InfinityBox started out by giving customers the option to choose reusable containers while ordering through food delivery platforms. After use, the startup would collect them back from the houses, wash and make them ready for reuse. Pilot programmes were run in cities like Bengaluru, Mumbai and Delhi with the support and funding of Swiggy.  

During the Covid-19 pandemic, bigger corporates approached the team. The companies needed packaging solutions in which they could distribute food to the workers. As these bulk orders made more economical sense InfinityBox started manufacturing ‘thalis’ that could be used more than 200 times.

“Today we work with corporates, hospitals, universities, coworking spaces, coliving spaces, and schools. You tell us what your packaging need is, and we will offer that service to you,” says Mr. Gangwal, whose client list includes Morgan Stanley, Piramal, Narayana Hospital, Aster Hospital, Eurokids school, and IIT Bombay among others. The startup is also working with leading food delivery start-ups and awaiting tech integration to incorporate the option of reusable containers onto the platforms.  

With about 25,000 orders per day today, InfinityBox claims to save 10 to 40 percent of the monthly operational costs of the client.

“With a client that we just onboarded we expect to save about 1.3 billion litres of water in about a year and 1,00,000 kgs of disposable waste. And that’s just one client. With another client, just by replacing disposable plates with reusable plates, close to 100kgs of waste was being saved every day,” Mr. Gangwal points out.  

On top of it, considering the quantity of water and chemicals that go into the manufacturing of the disposable plates each time, the environmental benefits that the model offers are huge, he notes.  

GroClub founders Hrishikesh Halase, Sapna Gowda, Pruthvi Gowda and Roopesh Shah

GroClub founders Hrishikesh Halase, Sapna Gowda, Pruthvi Gowda and Roopesh Shah

Outgrowing a problem

Pruthvi Gowda, Hrishikesh Halase, Sapna Gowda, and Roopesh Shah are all parents with young kids and have been observing how children outgrew products meant for them in a couple of years resulting in these products, despite being built to last several years, being discarded in a year or two. This prompted the quartet to found Gro Club which offers subscription services for kids bicycles and other products for kids.  

“Our mission is to reduce the waste that is generated in the kids’ category. Direct-to-consumer (D2C) companies generally ‘take, make and dispose.’ But we want to have less dependency on manufacturing and give the product in such a way that people can use it as long as it is useful for them,” Mr. Gowda explains.  

Once the kid outgrows the product, it can be returned to the start-up which would then refurbish it, give it a brand-new look, and reintroduce it to the market.  

According to the founders, the kids’ market was a conscious choice as between zero to 15 years children practically outgrow everything. Hand-me-downs aren’t also popular anymore with nuclear families replacing joint families.  

Gro Club’s subscription model allows the product to be used for 12 to 15 months, post which it can be returned. Parents can then upgrade it to the next size. The founders note that the subscription costs only 50 per cent of the money to buy the product.  

“According to a study we have done, manufacturing one single bicycle creates about 160 kgs of carbon emission. Whereas for us to refurbish, it will take only about 40 kgs of emission. There is no wastage or ecological damage. At the same time, we are profitable as well.” Gowda notes.  

“We are trying to change how people look at used products. If you introduce kids to such kind of services at an early age, they will get into the habit of using reused products. When you make that conscious shift, they’ll carry it forward as they grow up.” 

Gro Club which went live in January has about 5,000 subscribers within 25 kilometers radius of Bengaluru till date. While bicycle is the main product, the company also offers other kids’ products like car seats, strollers and bunk beds.   

Aiming to be a net zero company in the long term, Gro Club is also building a software which calculates the carbon emissions of the company which in turn would help them to adopt measures like afforestation to offset it.  

 Metastable materials founders Saurav Goyal, Manikumar Uppala and Shubham Vishvakarma

 Metastable materials founders Saurav Goyal, Manikumar Uppala and Shubham Vishvakarma | Photo Credit: HINDU

Responsible recycling  

Electrical vehicles have been gaining popularity in India, and Bengaluru has been one of the flagbearers of the EV revolution. Between 2021 and 2022, sales of EVs saw a whopping 210 percent growth. While the sales numbers have generated excitement in the industry and brought the limelight on to EV and lithium-ion battery manufacturers, equally important is the recycling of these batteries. A large portion of the batteries end up in landfills making it extremely hazardous for the environment and offsetting the benefits from the use of EVs. A few start-ups have been trying to fight this problem. 

Bengaluru-based Metastable Materials which recycles Li-ion batteries claim their differentiating factor is the technology used. The existing methods in the industry are energy intensive and require a lot of capital expenditure to set up the plant or do chemical-intensive leaching. Not only does this increase the cost of recycling, but the energy intensive processes also mean a higher carbon footprint.  

“We designed a new process that is completely chemical-free. We are not adding any chemicals to the process. Nor do we rely on highly energy-intensive processes. The total water consumption of our process is less than three litres per kg,” says Saurav Goyal, cofounder and CEO at Metastable Materials.  

The system has been designed in such a way that no air or water pollution is created during the process, claims Goyal, who points out that the startup looks at the supply chain part as well, thus adopting a holistic approach towards battery recycling. 

“When we talk about recycling, disposing off batteries is just one part of the equation. The other part is transportation of batteries to the recycling plant,” he notes. 

Batteries tend to catch fire towards the end of their lives, and this makes their transportation dangerous. Metastable Materials has, therefore, developed a packaging material which prevents any untoward incidents. These are boxes with multiple layers which are chemical and fire resistant and provide structural integrity. 

Mini Mines founders Arvind Bhardwaj and Anupam Kumar

Mini Mines founders Arvind Bhardwaj and Anupam Kumar | Photo Credit: HINDU

Creating mini ores

Mini Mines is yet another startup from Bengaluru operating in this market which is expected to grow to about$30 billion by 2030 globally. 

Anupam Kumar, co-founder, and CEO at Mini Mines notes that several recyclers shred the battery and separate the active material known as black mass which they then send to foreign countries like China where refined minerals from the black mass are used to make batteries. These batteries are then sold back to India. 

“This way the only value addition that is happening is going to the control of China. We at Mini Mines are solving this problem by extracting elemental compounds out of these waste batteries,” Kumar says. 

India doesn’t have resources for lithium, cobalt and nickel and is dependent on import for these chemicals that go into batteries. Mini Mines through its patented technology called hybrid hydro metallurgy (HHM) extracts valuable components from waste batteries. This way waste becomes a resource, and the discarded batteries work as mini ores from which chemicals could be obtained. 

“The whole process is cost effective because we are using an aqueous medium for extraction of the elemental compounds. There is no solid, liquid or gaseous discharge during the process or at the end of the process. The whole process is environment friendly and any compound that we are extracting is a valuable industrial commodity,” Kumar says.   

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