CONSERVE is a recycling and waste management NGO (non-governmental organization) that was founded in October 2003 in response to the mountains of garbage and litter, especially plastic bags that had become a common sight around the city of New Delhi.

The project employs poor urban women and men in the slums of east Delhi to collect, sort, weigh and clean plastic bags. Through a heating and pressing process, the plastic melts together creating a thicker more durable plastic material. Since the plastic bags come in all colors, different designs can be created using strips and cutouts of bags, no dyes or inks are required.

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Founded by Anita Ahuja and her husband Shalabh, the team started a non-government, non-profit organization explaining how waste could be segregated and turned into a resource. Wet kitchen waste could be turned into compost; dry waste like paper and glass could be recycled. It was while segregating the waste that they encountered their most important challenge. "We had heard of organizations working with zero waste- it was something we could not understand. Despite our best efforts there was nothing we could do with the mounds of discarded plastic bags. The resale value of polythene is very low, so we started to experiment." That proved to be the turning point.

They washed the plastic bags, braided, rolled them and made them into tiny baskets. But it involved a lot of work, and the couple didn't see a market for their products. Still, it forced them to work harder to find a solution for the mounds of discarded plastic bags. Finally, they hit upon the idea of washing, drying and pressing the plastic into sheets, using a pressing machine. The result: they came up with small plastic sheets, roughly 12" by 7". It was the breakthrough they had all been waiting for. From here on it was left to everyone's imagination, and they eventually started a line of handbags and accessories fashioned out of the recycled material.

The couple then decided to also work with rag-pickers in Madhuban. "The rag-pickers are the most marginalized section of our society . . . they should be allowed to live with dignity and given the opportunity to make a good life."

At dawn every day the rag-pickers deliver the recycled plastic shopping bags to the non-profits headquarters. The handles and bottoms of the plastic bags are snipped away and the open sheets washed with detergent on a cemented buffalo water trough. They are hung to dry on a clothesline and then layered together and pressed to make sheets that are designed, cut and stitched to make the amazing, environmentally friendly and ethical bags.

The non-profit NGO currently employ over 300 people and export bags all over the world, they use the money made from the sale of the bags to fund projects to help the rag-pickers and other marginalized sections of their community, such as building schools and employing more individuals.

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Conserve Video

Journey to India to learn about CONSERVE, the NGO project that makes our utensil holders from plastic bags.
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