This American Is Helping India Recycle Its Used Flowers To Stop Water Pollution & Create Livelihood For Women
September 12th, 2017
[The author of this article, Meleah Moore, is working with HelpUsGreen, Kanpur after pursuing a degree in sustainable development at St. Andrews, UK. She is an environment enthusiast and also has a keen interest in up cycling.]
Flowers are an important part of Indian tradition. They are found by billions in the Indian markets right at the morning. They found in humongous numbers in temples, churches, mosques and every other place that remains essentially intertwined with our faith. Enter a religious shrine, there are flower sellers at the entrance, flowers strewn all over the shrine’s floor, devotees receiving flowers in form of blessings. Ever wondered what happens to these flowers once we are done with our prayers?
According to religious beliefs, these flowers are considered sacrosanct. They are not thrown away with our regular bag of garbage. This one reason why people prefer to throw them in the water bodies instead, once they’ve dried up. But prior to throwing them in the water bodies, do we take a moment to think about the fertilizers and pesticides that might have been used to grow these flowers? These fertilizers end up choking the rivers and other water bodies where the used flowers are dumped into.
In the Indian tradition, Ganga is considered to be holy. This again is one reason why flowers are dumped into the river in humongous amounts every day and nearly 80 lakh tons of flowers are dumped in the water every year. The colours mould together and degrade, the consequences are detrimental. The arsenic, lead and cadmium content gathered from the farm runoff ruins the water. Once in the Ganga, thick residue from the insecticides and pesticides, dissolve to mix with the chemicals and begin a rotting process which causes immense damage to the marine ecosystem. The flowers begin a rotting process that kills the fish, suppresses the oxygen level and produces toxic compounds.
Meleah Moore is an environment enthusiast and she is an integral part of the marketing team with Helpusgreen, a social enterprise based out of Kanpur.
“I am Meleah Moore. I am from America and now I am working with Kanpur-based social enterprise Helpusgreen. Helpusgreen is the brainchild of two friends from Kanpur, Ankit Aggarwal and Karan Rastogi who began the initiative with the aim of utilizing the disposed of flowers and turning them into bio-fertilisers and lifestyle products. While growing up, Ganga had become an important part of their lives and it pained them to see it become increasingly polluted as years went by.
You might ask what made me shift my base to India and begin working here in the social sector? When I was in Kolkata last summer, water pollution was one of the first things I noticed. My first reaction upon seeing the mighty Ganga was why is it so polluted? From an environmental and health perspective, it’s harmful to have so many people relying on the water that is contaminated. I learned that flower waste now amounts to 16% of the total river pollutant of the Ganges and affects upwards of 400 million people. What I saw was unsettling. I began researching what kind of work was being done to fix the problem.
After finishing my degree in Sustainable Development at St Andrews the UK, I connected with Ankit Agarwal. We had met through Oikos, a student-run organization advocating sustainability, in 2015. A few years later the company he co-founded, Helpusgreen, was up and running. I was interested in gaining experience with a team that values ethics: a socially and environmentally responsible start-up. Helpusgreen was founded with the aim of utilising the disposed of flowers, turning them into bio-fertilizers and lifestyle products.
Helpusgreen uses the concept of ‘flowercycling’ to preserve the Rivers Ganges from becoming a religious sewer by up-cycling the monumental temple-waste. Flowers are collected and crafted by manual scavenger women, overcoming the concept of ‘untouchability’. Approximately, 77 women are working with Helpusgreen currently.
It’s not always simple; flower waste is a complicated problem, and an intriguing one, because flowers are a symbol of devotion. They cannot simply be discarded because it would not respect their sanctity. To deal with this, Helpusgreen makes natural products such as incense sticks, soap, and bio-fertilizer – all things that can be part of the religious practice again. Everything is organic and chemical free with the help of earthworms for vermicomposting and the addition of natural components like coffee residue and corn cobs.
Most days I work at our flower processing factory, located just outside of Kanpur, where I can see the operations first hand. Every day brings different tasks, from connecting with customers to enhancing our marketing strategy to editing photographs. The range of opportunity keeps me motivated.
As a student, I focused on energy systems and climate change, so I was initially drawn to the ecological aspect of Helpusgreen. After a few months of working in the social impact sector, my perceptions have widened. What initially caught my attention is still important, but at the same time, a great portion of the work is about empowering manual scavenger women. It’s about providing them with an opportunity to gain respect and dignity.
Connecting with the women has been one of the best parts of my job. I have learned how to roll incense sticks and shape incense cones with them, a task that allowed me to see how skilled and quick they are! I have created more friendly connections by being a woman and often ask questions about how their work is changing their personal lives. It was through these communication channels that we began employing women full-time instead of part-time and formed self-help groups to make sure the benefits of working are not wronged by stealing or corruption. Their responses make clear that working has not only given them a larger income and new skillset, it is systematic change. Working for Helpusgreen has improved the way they are viewed by others and afforded them a respect they have not had previously.
As a newcomer to India, the move to work in Kanpur came with a steep learning curve. It was a big decision, but what drew me to the job was Helpusgreen’s potential and community. Working for this company is different than most other for-profit social enterprises, both in its multilevel values and diverse team. The start-up environment brings energy and activity, but also visible, tangible impacts. My work requires me to be adaptable, and I’ve quickly realized it is the best place to learn. Being part of the social impact community has made a huge difference as I continue to meet incredible change-makers.
There is a lot on the horizon for Helpusgreen, including new investments, collaborations, and a plant-based organic Styrofoam that is biodegradable. Of my time thus far I’ve noticed my perception change. From my first time in India, I only saw the flower waste as a problem. Now, working for Helpusgreen and living here long term, I see it as an opportunity. There is so much positive work to be done.”
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