Where have all the flowers gone? India starts recycling religious ceremony leftovers

Floral waste that used to be dumped in the Ganges is being repurposed for compost, candles and incense sticks

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“What is holy today is becoming waste tomorrow, so how can we make it holy again?” asks Maya Vivek, one of the founders of Holy Waste, describing the work of her small business in the south Indian city of Hyderabad.

She’s referring to the waste left behind at places of worship, including temples and mosques, where they use flowers in prayer rituals. Hyderabad alone generates more than 1,000 metric tonnes every day, Vivek says.

Floral waste is one of India’s biggest pollutants, on land and water, accounting for nearly a third of all solid waste in the country, according to statistics. Because they have been offered in prayers, the dead flowers are considered holy, and not to be disposed of with the other rubbish. And so they get dumped into the nearest body of water, usually a river.

The Ganges, revered and adored as Ganga ma by millions, takes in more than eight million metric tonnes of flower waste every year, says UN Climate Change. Now imagine this in hundreds of rivers and lakes throughout the country.

Floral waste not only clogs up the water channels, it also releases pesticides and insecticides into the already murky waters, harming human beings who drink from it, as well as resident marine life. In areas with no convenient access to water, flower waste is simply left in large piles on streets, or thrown into landfills. This causes a different type of problem, increasing carbon emissions and other types of air and soil pollution.

Thankfully, social entrepreneurs in parts of India have come to the rescue over the past few years, collecting and cleaning these discarded flowers and turning them into usable products, such as organic compost and, more valuably, soaps, candles, incense sticks and natural dyes.

Holy Waste is one such brand, under the parent company Oorvi (meaning Earth), founded by Vivek and Minal Dalmia to provide a new lease of life to Hyderabad’s flower waste. In the same way, in Kanpur in the north Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, companies such as Help Us Green and Phool do their bit to clean up the Ganges.

Farther north is the Sanjeevani Self Help Group, run under the Jammu and Kashmir Rural Livelihood Mission, which collects and recycles dry flower waste from the popular Vaishno Devi shrine and surroundings. In the heart of India, in Madhya Pradesh, Art Ichol does similar work, converting flower waste into incense sticks.

For Phool’s founder Ankit Agarwal, it all started in 2015, when his European friend commented on the floating rubbish in the Ganges in his hometown of Kanpur. For the first time, Agarwal saw with fresh eyes the problem of river congestion and its ecological damage. As Nachiket Kuntla, head of research and development at Phool, puts it: “When an individual throws flowers into the river, [he] thinks, ‘what harm can a handful of flowers cause?’ But we are a country of more than a billion people, so imagine the effect.”

A couple of years after his realisation, Agarwal started Phool (meaning flower) as a way to deal with this pollutant and create something organic and useful for the same people who create the waste.

Vivek and Dalmia were inspired by online videos of such processes, and started their own initiative in 2018. By the time the Covid-19 pandemic struck, they had a product ready for the commercial market, and were processing nearly 800kg of flower material every week, with the help of 10 employees.

The Phool team says the process of converting flower waste into incense is not complicated. The old flowers are collected every morning, and sorted by workers who clean up plastic and other waste, and then separate the petals. They are then sun dried and pulverised into powder form, after which they are rolled into incense sticks along with some fragrance. “Every step of our production is monitored and controlled to make sure it is sustainable,” Kuntla says. “We use only pure essential oils and no artificial fragrances. Even the central part of the flower and rotten bits go towards making vermicompost and manure.”

These small enterprises across India are not only helping the environment, but are also providing skills training and employment opportunities to local women. “We figured that if we could give women favourable circumstances to work in, we could turn them into people with economic freedom,” Vivek says.

At Phool, the workforce of nearly 200 employees is made up entirely of women, many of them from manual scavenging communities that Kuntla describes as traditionally having “low dignity and low income”.

To give women more freedom at work, Holy Waste has also allowed them to work from home since the pandemic, giving them pedal-powered machines. “They are not rolling with their hands all day, they get to work at their own time and pace, and manage an output of 6kg to 7kg a day — that is 4,000 sticks,” Vivek says.

While these companies sell incense sticks and cones, essential oils, soaps and other home fragrance products, Phool has gone further in its research, developing a vegan leather from the same material. Fleather, as they’ve called it, was a serendipitous discovery by Kuntla, who first noticed a thin, fibrous growth on the old flowers. When treated, the substance looked and felt like leather, and that made Kuntla put this thinking cap on. Fleather is still under testing, but the company has managed to make shoes, wallets and sling bags from the material.

This upcycling model — of turning once-fragrant flowers into luxury products — is slowly catching the attention of other entrepreneurs in other parts of the country, not to mention reviving whole communities. So far, it’s been the most viable solution for this kind of waste.

Updated: February 18, 2023, 9:16 AM