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Rethinking Waste With Nupur Tandon: Create Communities That Manage Their Waste Themselves

Posted: November 11, 2020

Nupur Tandon says it all: technology alone is not the magic bullet that can solve the social and cultural problems of our country, individual responsibility and accountability a must.

Don’t be deceived when you meet this soft-spoken and an absolutely unassuming woman. Because what you will find is a gritty, focussed professional who has taken up the challenge of imagining a ‘Future of the Earth without Landfills’.

Let me introduce you to Nupur Tandon – Founder of ‘Prowaste Concepts’ (established 2013) – who dreams of a future without landfills. A company that has successfully executed over 20 projects in cities such as Bangalore, Gandhinagar and Vijayawada.

A landfill, as the reader would know, is a dumping ground for mixed waste, and is a major source of soil pollution and groundwater pollution.

Even as civic administrations struggle to implement the concept of ‘proper waste management’ in our towns and cities, Nupur’s model in implementing sustainable decentralised waste management systems across projects in India is making sure that no waste goes into landfills.

A calling – meet Nupur Tandon

In an interesting and inspiring tete-a-tete with this social entrepreneur, I learn that she is a graduate from the Allahabad University, whose close connection with nature began as she spent time with her grandfather whilst he was gardening. “I saw him compost, prepare saplings, which he generously gave away to friends and relatives,” reminisces Nupur.

Marriage took her to Paris where she spent eight years raising her children and also teaching English to French students. But her true calling was working with the environment, and when the family returned to New Delhi, she enrolled for a Master’s degree in Environmental Sciences even whilst working for the French embassy in New Delhi. “When I enrolled for the course, I had no clue that I would do a deep dive in the field of solid waste management, but it certainly created a base for it.” At the same time her work at the embassy gave her skills in micro detailing of processes, documenting, and standardizing systems to enhance efficiency- something that that has held her in good stead.

Developing a business model for waste management

The family moved to Bangalore in 2010, where she saw the city grappling with the garbage problem that had spurred on many a citizen movement. Nupur also decided to be part of it. But there was a lot more she wanted to do and following her instincts she decided to register her own private limited company and called it “Prowaste Concepts’. An entrepreneur was born.

However, it took her two long years to conceptualize a model that would address the gaps that existed in the current waste management systems. She found that the classic model where waste is collected and managed with a technology had huge lacunae.

Individual responsibility and accountability

Says Nupur Tandon, “My idea of a successful system was to create communities that could manage their waste themselves.”  So that’s exactly how her business model evolved and now Pro Waste helps communities to redesign and structure the waste management processes for them and handhold them till they become self-reliant.

Nupur Tandon clearly believes in the dictum, “Give a Man a Fish, and You Feed Him for a Day. Teach a Man to Fish, and You Feed Him for a Lifetime.” It all comes down to individual responsibility and accountability.

The projects that have been implemented successfully by Nupur range from large campuses like IIT, Gandhinagar, JNCASR, Bangalore to mid-size residential complexes. She has also executed projects in ashrams, factories and also the Indian Army. Many of her projects are in ‘auto mode’, as the training given for segregation, sorting and sending to recycling streams is now seamless.  This speaks a lot about her training and implementation.

How does the process work?

What she does is the following: A detailed audit is first done on the premises of the client to understand its waste management systems and processes. Then the missing infrastructure is identified. She makes sure colour-coded bins for waste segregation, composting units or biogas plants are all in place. Processes are also delineated for the collection, transportation and management of different categories of waste. Appropriate vendors are empanelled to ensure the waste is properly dealt with right up to the disposal stage.

Managing solid waste is tough work and Prowaste has been acknowledged by industry bodies like TiE with the ‘Anthaha Prerna’ award. She was also awarded the ‘Campus Development Award’ for spearheading green campus initiatives in January 2020.

Challenges on the way

I ask her about the challenges to which Nupur Tandon says, “Every project that we undertake is unique and challenging. We customize, work together with the community and personally train the house-keeping staff according to the needs.  We strongly believe that technology alone is not the magic bullet that can solve the social and cultural problems of our country.”

“The challenge is to make waste management a priority for organizations and campuses. While they spend huge amounts of money for cleaning services, the management of waste is totally ignored. My role and aim is to show my clients how waste can become a resource if treated scientifically,” she continues.

Nupur’s toughest challenge is to work against unscrupulous contractors who have modelled their business by increasing the number of trips they make to the landfill and filling their pockets. Prowaste, on the contrary wants to make sure that only the ‘reject waste’ reaches the landfill. Otherwise, every bit of waste can be a resource for a circular economy. Indeed, the lack of awareness in the country is what makes operations challenging for social entrepreneurs like Nupur.

“People do not know that waste is valuable and have never bothered to know the extent of environmental degradation it is causing.” Most of Prowaste clients are ‘bulk generators’ and their initiatives have kept over 40 tonnes of waste out of landfills per day – and that is no mean achievement.

Nupur Tandon: challenges as a woman entrepreneur

Did being a woman come in the way of doing business? Nupur feels that gender has never come in the way of being a social entrepreneur and feels that both men and women do face the same challenges. However, on a personal level, women have to go the extra mile juggling the home and the professional front, as the much-needed family support is not always available. “But if a woman has her eyes on the goal, then nothing can deter her”, Nupur adds.

It is rare to find a woman in the solid waste sector, but Nupur Tandon has indeed paved the way for others who may want to take this step in a sector that requires more entrepreneurs and is also capable of giving employment.

How had the pandemic affected her business? Like all businesses, the Covid pandemic has also affected Pro Waste with issues like delayed payments.  Additionally, the disposal of biomedical waste like masks and gloves had to be handled carefully. But on the brighter side, her reputation and professionalism also garnered new enquiries and she now has new projects in the pipeline.

Nupur’s parting lines are, “It’s about time people start taking care of the waste they generate and moreover they have to start choosing eco-friendly products and mind their consumption choices such that they can reduce generation of waste.” Amen to that!

Images source: Nupur Tandon & Sangeeta Venkatesh

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Sangeeta Venkatesh is the co-author of 'The Waste Issue' - an interactive workbook for school

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