When Sidhant Pai visited a local rubbish dump in his home city of Pune, India, he was struck by the size and intensity of the operation. Large black crows swooping overhead, roaming pigs, overwhelming odours and groups of waste pickers collecting plastic bottles in large white sacks.
There are an estimated 15 million people globally who currently make their living from waste picking and many earn less than a dollar a day. A key problem, says environmental engineer Pai, is that workers only capture a tiny proportion of the value of the waste they collect, separate and transport to scrap dealers.
Together with his parents, Suchismita and Jayant Pai, he founded social enterprise Protoprint in 2012, one of a number of organisations trying to address the twin issues of poor conditions for waste pickers and plastic waste pollution. More than 300m tonnes of plastic are produced globally every year, with much ending up in the ocean (one refuse truck’s worth every minute), in landfill, or on city streets.
“Our focus was on looking into different ways to add value to the waste, we were agnostic about the specific product,” Pai says. After experimenting with making a few different products, Protoprint settled on making the plastic filament – the “ink” – for 3D printers. “It added a tremendous amount of value to the waste plastic while still being relatively simple to manufacture at the dump.”
Protoprint partnered with SWaCH, a Pune-based cooperative wholly owned by waste pickers. Together they have set up a low-cost filament production facility at a local rubbish dump in Pune operated by SWaCH waste pickers to convert plastic waste – specifically high-density polyethylene (HPDE) mostly used for plastic bottles – into 3D printing filament to eventually be sold to Indian or international 3D printing companies.
Protoprint buys filament from SwaCH for 300 rupees (£3.50) per kg – if waste pickers sold the plastic waste directly to scrap merchants the pickers would receive around 19 rupees (23p) per kg, says Pai.