Innovating from waste


Even in western countries, where recycling of waste happens very scientifically, there are some who prefer creative recycling. Why not make toys out of cardboard waste or teach young children their arithmetic concepts with cardboards and sketches, asks G. Venkatesh who makes and gifts these toys to friends’ kids in Trondheim, Norway.

Waste paper and waste cardboard. The ones used for packaging especially.

You shop from IKEA somewhere in Europe and you have a few square metres of cardboard to think about after you have done your DIY (Do It Yourself). You would simply take for granted that there is an efficient paper-waste-recycling system in town and would dutifully consign the waste cardboard and paper into the recycling bin (which we, in India, look down upon as a ‘trash can’). What you deposit there will be vended to a paper mill somewhere in the region, smashed into pulp and may emerge in some other paper/cardboard avatar either for packaging (closed loop recycling, as they call it) or for some other purpose (open-loop). You would anyway, by doing this at least, have proven that you care for the environment, even if you do not really do so! But wait a minute. Is it possible to think laterally and differently and think more sustainably for alternatives – for social, economic and environmental gains…looking further and higher and beyond conventions? Yes, surely. This has been tried and tested by yours sincerely, on a micro-scale, or call it nano-scale, if you may, in his own home-office, a small room, with a work table.

Knowledge games out of waste

I have been reusing waste cardboard and paper in my spare time, to create ‘knowledge games’ for little children – boys and girls in the age-group of 3-10, in Trondheim (Norway). Well, all I need is time, inclination to make a difference, waste paper (usually got from office printers where paper is often used irresponsibly, with friends chipping in from supplies from their offices) and cardboard (packaging material, again with some friends chipping in), pencil, colour pencils, glue, poster colours (and thereby water, paintbrush and palette). Of course, I need friends who help out and a market – family friends with children in the said age-group! What I make, I gift to children, either on their birthdays, or just as casual gifts when my wife and I go visiting. These ‘knowledge games’ encompass alphabets (in four languages so far, Hindi, English, Norwegian and Tamil), numbers and math, geography, animals/ birds/insects, and so on. Every single creation takes time – at times, 4-5 hours or more in all, to fashion singlehandedly. But that is time wellspent, in my opinion. A rewarding experience indeed, when one sees smiles on the faces of the recipients and when the kids bring out the ‘knowledge games’ the next time you visit them, and urge me to play the same with them! Often, the kids are told to be free to structure their own games and make their own rules…adding to the dimension of induced creativity at a young age. One of these kids, after having received a ‘numbers-game’ from me, was spotted by his teacher in kindergarten to be writing down ‘2+2’, ‘4+1’, etc., on his sheet of paper, when the other kids were just scribbling meaningless nothings! Must I take the blame for it, or credit? I am not sure.

A viable business idea

Well, how about developing this into a business idea? To rival the giants in the kid-games sector, who churn out thousands and thousands of different kinds of games and playthings daily, sell them at a profit, devoid of the human/ personal touch? Well, not rival for that matter but test the waters and try to get a small chunk of the market-pie?

Arrange for the procurement of raw materials, initially by word of mouth and thereafter by entering into formal contracts with potential sources of such materials. One can find volunteers with the ability, interest and inclination to chip in with their time and expertise and contribute. Or there could be people recruited on an hourly-wage basis (those who are unemployed, those who are in transition between jobs, housewives who do not work outside the home, senior citizens, mentally-challenged or physically-handicapped individuals who can be trained, and even recuperating drug addicts). The potential employee-pool is vast if one would care to keep an open mind and explore. At once, a huge social contribution is made!

The products can be sold at nominal prices, and the proceeds used to pay those who would work for wages, to invest in marketing and other operating expenses (stationery materials usually), and a charitable angle – different from children, environment and education can be factored in. Say for instance, contributing to healthcare, caring for the aged and infirm, or to the Red Cross for its endeavours in famine/ war/catastrophe-stricken regions of the world. Parents keen on wearing the ‘Pro-environment cap’ and/or the ‘Charitable’ label, will enroll as loyal customers and also spread the message among friends and acquaintances in kindergartens and schools. The waste cardboard will be reused – openloop – for some more weeks or months, before finally being recycled anyway.

Environmentally, this is a super-step forward. Economically, it provides employment to different categories of people (as listed above), and offers parents with the opportunity to purchase something at more-affordable prices serving similar purposes for their children. Socially, it is a great contribution to the educational (learn while you play) needs of children; and if among the employees, you count the disadvantaged, this will contribute immensely to including them in the economy (informal nevertheless). Psychologically, it comes with a strong ‘feel-good’ factor for the creators, the purchasers (who also feel happy at being pro-environmental, and charitable) and of course, the end-users – the children themselves.

I made something out of waste cardboard and paper – coloured self-sketched cartoons of animals and birds for a five-year-old Norwegian boy in kindergarten. He opened the cover in which I had packed these sketches, and exclaimed as he peeped in, ‘Bare papp’(meaning ‘just cardboard’ in Norwegian). He then went on to extract the contents from the cover and was delighted as he was explaining to his threeyear- old brother what the sketches represented – cat, dog, camel, elephant, monkey, etc.

How about ‘Barepapp®’ for a name for this enterprise? Note that this could become a multinational outfit with a global market, in the years to come…Anyone interested in collaborating?


G. Venkatesh

The writer is Senior Lecturer, Karlstad University, Sweden