As India’s population grows, so does the amount of trash it produces, and greater the challenge of dealing with waste. This is the problem that the Chennai-based social enterprise Paperman was created to address.
“With rising urbanization and global consumption patterns, waste management is a critical sector that needs a bold vision and innovation,” says Mathew Jose, Paperman’s founder and chief executive officer. “Since 2010, Paperman has been continuously innovating to improve the waste management ecosystem in South India.”
Paperman’s innovations include a mobile phone app that connects hundreds of specially trained kabadiwalas, or scrap dealers, to thousands of households, empowering them to work together to keep waste out of trash bins and landfills. Beyond such doorstep recycling efforts, Paperman has played a key role in implementing recycling programs in over 200 schools and institutions in South India. More than 300,000 children have participated in awareness campaigns that encourage more recycling and less trash. At a broader scale, Paperman consults with local government bodies and multinational corporations on ways to increase recycling and minimize what ends up in landfills. Jose and his team also provide a combination of solutions and software tools that help large organizations sort and recycle materials, track their sustainability efforts and fulfill their waste management requirements.
Paperman has kept more than one million kilograms of waste out of landfills, and this number is expected to grow exponentially. But the organization’s viability was never guaranteed.
Jose says that he began the company as a 21-year-old with very limited technical knowledge about waste management and recycling. While his lack of experience initially made success a challenge, “the journey really pushed me to be a better leader every day,” he says. And, approaching the problem from a fresh perspective proved to be a strength.
Looking at the industry from the outside allowed Jose “to build a more unique and cost-effective business model for waste management, compared to the model deployed by large waste management companies. This also translated into better service at a cheaper cost for our clients.” Local government bodies, a main category of clients for Paperman, are now better able to plan and execute effective waste management strategies, Jose describes. Similarly, Paperman makes it easier for multinational companies to meet their corporate requirements for sustainability.
Jose recently brought fresh knowledge to his work at Paperman, through his participation in the U.S. State Department’s International Visitor Leadership Program (IVLP). Through the exchange program, he visited the United States to learn more about managing refuse and recycling in urban areas. “The experience of seeing how a city like New York handles its waste really helped me understand new technologies and management strategies that are important for the sector,” says Jose. “The program has also helped me establish new collaborations for scaling up our organization's work.”
Like other enterprises across India, the COVID-19 pandemic impacted Paperman too and prompted it to initiate a number of steps. For instance, with the plastics market crashing, the organization decided to provide weekly fixed price assurance so that its partners could work without worrying about price fluctuations. In addition, the top management took salary cuts, to enable the organization to retain all its frontline staff. Paperman also initiated other measures like mandating hand sanitizing before entering or leaving its warehouse premises and organizing weekly meetings with its workforce on how to keep their families and neighborhoods safe from coronavirus.
In the years ahead, Jose expects Paperman’s reach and capabilities to continue growing. “Over the next 5 to 10 years, we hope to build on our waste recycling capacities,” he says. “Our larger goal is to build a strong ethical and effective leadership team that will be able to truly clean up the world.”
Beyond any single company, country, or environment-friendly initiative, Jose says that the core value of sustainability is one that everyone around the world must live by. He urges everyone “to think about the planet when you build a new product or service, or buy a home, car or clothes. India needs bold leadership to give clean living spaces for its 1.3 billion people.”
Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.
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