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Genesis
When she was 8, my daughter Kaajal came home from school and told us that plastic bags were BAD and that we wouldn't have them in our home EVER. Stamped her feet and got quite emphatic about it.

I was intrigued and thrilled that she had picked up on an issue and was so concerned. We banned plastic bags from out home, first to indulge her, but when I started reading about it I realised that she was talking about a major issue; one that should concern all of us. I was appalled at the amount of plastic the world was throwing away every day.

Bigger problem than we can see
This plastic waste doesn't biodegrade so it either chokes landfill or is swallowed by innocent animals and marine life who die ghastly deaths because plastic is toxic and indigestible and choked their digestive systems. This is no random occurrence; 10,000 fish die of the coast of Greece every day, and this is happening all over the world.

So, what are YOU doing about it?
I decided to go into business making reusable cloth bags. Today, we are proud to be shipping cotton, jute and other fabric bags to folks all over the world (see our line at http://www.badlani.com/bags).

Reality
But we're just one little company, and scale of the problem is colossal. And the convenience of plastic bags is so high that they will continue to be used, regardless of whatever we do.

So what then?
One evening, a while ago, I spoke to my friend Prakash Vani (he's a most interesting guy and a great joy to get into discussions with) about what plastic bags were doing to our world.

Prakash is a product designer who's paid special attention to learning about plastics. He's fond of the stuff and sees it as a force for good, not to be wasted in the form of plastic bags. He has an insatiable curiosity and a desire to try what has never been attempted before. Makes him an interesting guy.

Bigger problem than we can see
The problem with plastic bags is that you see them one at a time and it is difficult for most people to imagine the thought of one million plastic bags being discarded every minute, and just piling up.

So we kicked it around until we evolved some ideas.

Prakash discussed it with his friend Himadri Ghosh, who was at the time with the National Institute of Design, who also got very turned on by the thought of doing something and before long, he'd thrown in his hat. Himadri also has the itch to try out new stuff, new methods all the time.

Criteria
Apart from finding a use for discarded plastic bags, we gave ourselves another criterion.

India is a country of many contrasts. Even as the educated younger people are finding great opportunities in the IT and BPO sectors, and as our GDP growth rate races ahead to try and match China's, we remain by and large a poor country.

Millions of uneducated folks who grew up learning traditional skills are today completely disoriented by what is happening around them.

We're concerned about this tragic sociological drama we see being played out, and we decided to try and see if we could utilize the skills these people had to let them add a gainful activity to their repertoire, especially as the raw material is so cheap and therefore affordable even by those who have precious little to invest in working capital.

The problem more closely defined
The problem is all these plastic bags lying around doing colossal harm. So, why not find a use for them, we thought, why not use them as a raw material from which poor, unemployed people can make a living?
 

Just look at this awful stuff. That's the stuff we start with.

They are not going to biodegrade. If we leave them around they will choke landfill or be eaten by innocent animals and marine life and cause them immense misery before they die from choked digestive systems.

Why not turn them into something useful?
And, if we can, let's keep it so simple that it takes almost no investment in equipment and requires no additional energy to be used so that the poorest of the poor can work at this and get some gainful employment.

But we add the painstaking effort of sincere and hard working people.
And add the skill and innovativeness of people who the world used to wonder at, people who made an art form of weaving.
These instincts and skills put India on the world map as the erstwhile textile center of the world.

These looms used to generate a livelihood for many families who had weaving running through their blood, but faster and more efficient power driven weaving devices have made these skills redundant. This experiment of ours hopes to revive the utility of these looms for these families, allowing them to use discarded plastic bags as the raw material to make interesting products from.

These are proud people, but rendered helplessly disoriented with changing technology and the fact that they haven't been able to find their place in the newly emerging environment. We hope you will join us making them relevant to our needs again.

It's not just their learned skills we hope to tap into. It's the finely honed instincts, the pride and the dignity, and the sheer native innovativeness of the people we've been fortunate to be born amidst. So, history got them a wee bit lost. We hope to be able to help them find their way again. They'll take it from there!

Much better than these bags choking animals and marine life wouldn't you say?

Make them beautiful!
Look at this line of handbags and totes for example.

They are great looking and immensely sturdy. Use them and use them and abuse them and they will still last for years. Click on any of these pictures to open a bigger picture to see how attractive they are (this feature isn't here yet. We'll have it up shortly). Here's another set of beautiful bags.

Here's a close up of the incredibly attractive texture of the incredible material that results from this technique.

 

The very randomness of colours and thicknesses combines to form an unpredictable but unbelievably beautiful set of textures, colours and surfaces that are almost organic in their development, following nature's way of evolving diversity. There are no patterns, no effort nor any attempts to be homogenous. Every piece that emerges is going to be magical in it's uniqueness, reflecting the diversity of materials and people who made it happen.

When you contrast what you see here with what you see in the first picture in the previous column, you can see what wonders can be performed when folks come together to apply their skills to make the best use of whatever they have, be it dilapidated old looms, or plastic junk you wouldn't touch with a barge pole.

Now we need to tie up with similarly minded folks to make this exercise commercially viable. We'll soon have a series of propositions up to discuss with you. Meanwhile, if you run into this story and would like to discuss a thought, email me at rajiv @ badlani.com