When he was 10 years old, Dr Binish Desai dreamed of building the cheapest house in the world. With the help of some chewing gum, he did it. Now he’s leading a recycling revolution in India
Who invented recycling? You might guess the environmentalists of the 1970s, but you’d be wrong—it was the ancient Romans. According to archaeologists, piles of waste outside the walls of Pompeii show that many Romans had a circular approach to waste management. Citizens would dump rubbish outside the city walls, only to bring it back to life as, let’s say, a fresh road, or the portico of an open-plan villa.
“This point has relevance for the modern garbage crisis,” Allison Emmerson, a classical studies scholar at Tulane University, New Orleans, told the Guardian after the discovery this week. “The countries that most effectively manage their waste have applied a version of the ancient model, prioritising commodification rather than simple removal.”
Which brings us to the modern day and the childhood home of Binish Desai, the Recycling Man of India, in the region of Gujarat. When he was just 10, Desai (now 26) would sit watching Captain Planet on Cartoon Network. “He's a hero, gonna take pollution down to zero!” the theme tune would go, a message which resonated in India and across much of the rest of the world. “Approximately 40,000 industries in India produce 19,000 tonnes [of waste] every day,” Desai tells Change Incorporated. “That's like sending 10,000 cars every day into a landfill.”
One day in school, a piece of chewing gum became stuck to his trousers. Trying not to disturb the class, he scraped it off and left it at the side of the room. When he eventually went to fetch it, it had hardened. “I went back home and did the same experiment again. I was very curious.” That led to his first prototype brick, and the formation of a lifetime ambition. “During the same year I learned about the word slums,” he says, “and how it was having a negative impact on the environment for the people living there; how the slum dwellers didn't have houses. It came in my mind that one day I want to make the world's cheapest house.”
He continued to experiment, mixing any ingredients he could get his hands on, including his mum’s talcum powder, to try and make a workable brick, and eventually hit on a formula he still uses today. The core ingredient in the bricks, which are technically known as P-Blocks, is the waste that comes from paper mills—the part of the paper which can’t be recycled and normally ends up burned or dumped. The other key ingredient is “a trade secret”, but it's a byproduct of chewing gum from gum manufacturers—from the parts which don’t end up in the final sticks consumers buy. The ingredients are mixed together then molded by hand and dried in the sun or in a solar concentrator.
When he went to study abroad for a year in the USA, his host family pointed out that these inventions could form the basis of a possible career, but the idea wasn’t universally popular. “I came back home, and I told my family, and that was when they said if you want to do this you have to do it all by yourself, we're not going to support you… Working with waste was a taboo here.”
Desai had only 1600 rupees in his pocket (around $20), but persevered nonetheless, working on the bricks in the backyard of a nearby factory as the sun went down in the evenings after college. “I believed in the product, because by then I had already filed for the patent. I was already working. I didn't want to give up on my dreams.” In 2011 he built a 200 square foot house for just $380.
My belief is we need innovation—we need creators to get rid of the waste, not in a small amount, but actually sustainably
Today Desai’s social enterprises make houses for around $1000 a pop, or larger abodes in the forms of schools or other buildings for $10,000. They also make paving for roads, sanitation, artificial wood and numerous other products such as flooring, wall panels, lights and even an iPhone cover, all conjured from a selection of more than 70 kinds of commercial waste.
He measures success by how much waste they recycle rather than how much money they make, so at 7,000 tonnes of waste annually as of March 2020, he’s something of a FTSE 100 billionaire in recycling terms. But chewing gum remains a go-to raw material. “It's the leftover chewing gum base that is thrown out,” he reiterates. “We procure the [byproduct] from the chewing gum manufacturers.” Industrial producers actually pay to have their waste taken away, as it’s a headache for them to dispose of themselves.
It’s a far more sustainable way of dealing with waste than much of what the modern world considers recycling. “We are just citing right now the plastic waste but we are not citing a bigger problem—the lesser talked about industrial waste,” Desai says, “which is again ending up in landfill. I feel the concept of recycling has become quite flawed by a lot of industries and companies [that have] completely misunderstood the word. Right now what we are doing is we are not recycling the waste, we are just basically segregating it and relocating it from one place to the other. For example, a lot of places we are cleaning up the beaches but we are collecting it and throwing it into a landfill which is right next to a body of water, so eventually this will get washed away and end up in the ocean.
“My belief is we need innovation—we need creators to get rid of the waste, not in a small amount, but actually sustainably. The only way to do so is to be economic.”
Desai’s organisations do this by striking a balance of three parameters to ensure sustainability: social impact, environmental impact, and profitability. They partner with corporations who want to run socially responsible initiatives, and offer them the attractive prospect of building with a 30 percent reduction in cost compared with conventional materials. “We create an end to end Corporate Social Responsibility project, where their waste becomes a commodity. For example, right now we use a company's waste to create pavements and roads” for an entire village.
Each villages’ individual needs are accounted for, in a process of listening that led Desai to create Eco Lights Studios. His “micro-social enterprise”, this part of his work focuses on economic empowerment of women. The idea came from listening to a woman called Dinah, who wasn’t actually pleased with the toilet that was being made for her. “She got angry at us for making this toilet,” Desai says. “We were confused: why is she doing that? She told me that she didn't have enough money to maintain that structure, which gave us an idea that these women are forbidden from going outside their village and a lot of places outside their houses because of the culture, because they have to take care of the family, all these things. So why not bring the factory to them?
“Instead of having one factory, we have multiple factories in all of these villages. Each woman is an entrepreneur." The women create lights and home decor from the materials provided by the studio, which it then collects in exchange for money. "One of our success stories has been a woman who sent her daughter to computer classes to learn how to use a computer for the first time, using the money that she was earning from this particular sector.”
Underpinning all of this work is an inspiring message. “What can be a waste to you is someone else's asset,” Desai advises. “Start looking for assets around you. Start considering waste as an important commodity. Start segregating [waste] specifically… If you have a lot of tin cans, segregate that for example.” No start is too small. “We are collecting the coffee waste from cafes and making mugs and crockery out of it to give back to them,” he says. “It's all about a circular economy.”
Presumably, the Romans would have agreed.