In Hindu temples in India, flowers are an important part of religious practice, with shrines to Hindu deities covered with red, orange and yellow blossoms. But these flowers are sprayed with pesticides and other chemicals, which pollute the environment when thrown away. In Kanpur, in the north of the country, two entrepreneurs have started a company that recycles these flowers, while also employing women from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Karan Rastogi and Ankit Agarwal both grew up in Kanpur, a city in the north-east of India that sits on the banks of the Ganges river. Kanpur is the ninth-largest city in India, and the largest in the region of Uttar Pradesh. It is known for its factories and particularly its leather industry. However, this thriving industry is also the cause of hazardous levels of pollution. Rastogi and Agarwal both wanted to create a business that would support local workers and also play a role in reducing pollution. They focused on a source of pollution that had nothing to do with the city’s factories or tanneries, but its temples: the flowers given as offerings to the gods.

A cow rummages among discarded temple flowers mixed with rubbish.


Discarded flowers in a truck on their way to a HelpUsGreen factory.

Their company, HelpUsGreen, was created in December 2014. The company collects the flowers from the temples and transforms them into handmade organic products such as incense sticks and cones.

“Chemicals from flowers have a devastating effect on the water”

Meleah Moore works at HelpUsGreen. She says the flowers are an overlooked source of pollution that is estimated to make up as much as 16 percent of the pollutant in the river Ganges.

These flowers are everywhere. You find them on the streets, especially around temples. Everyone buys them. When people go to the temple they always buy a few flowers as an offering. Then the people working in the temple throw the flowers in the water after use. This is because the Ganges is seen as sacred water, and so as part of the process, when the flowers are devoted to the gods they should be discarded in the most holy way possible.

A person swims in the polluted Ganges. Photo: HelpUsGreen

But they have chemicals and pesticides all over them, they clog the sides of the river, and it mixes with industrial effluent and creates a mixture that is devastating to the water quality. If it were just a few flowers, it wouldn’t be such a huge problem. But it’s on a monumental scale. Eight million metric tonnes of flowers are dropped in the river every year. And the Ganges is crucial to life here. People don’t just drink it, they bathe in it, wash their clothes in it and  use it for cooking. It’s part of life here.


Waste discarded by a temple. Photo: HelpUsGreen

The floriculture industry in India is growing at a rate of five percent annually, and small-scale cultivators are trying to take advantage of this nascent industry by meeting market needs – but to do this they rely heavily on pesticides and other chemicals.

 

Waste flowers discarded along with plastic and other rubbish.

HelpUsGreen doesn’t just try to provide a solution to combat pollution in the water. It also tackles the social problem of discrimination between ‘castes’ by employing local disadvantaged women.




“Our employing these women changes their lives”

We employ women who do manual scavenging. In India these women are a group that are really discriminated against. They don’t have many opportunities. [Editor’s note: people who work as manual scavengers are often from a lower caste, known as the dalit or ‘untouchables’. The job involves cleaning public toilets and latrines, usually without any protective equipment, in highly unsanitary conditions. This minority faces severe discrimination and exclusion in society.] This is part of a longer process towards creating a shift in mindset in society. Employing them is really changing their lives. We give them bank accounts and insurance, and we help them and try to make them less reliant on their husbands. We employ 120 women at the moment, which has had an impact on 1,260 different families, and helped send over 50 children to school.


A woman employed by HelpUsGreen.

 

“The flowers are recycled back into the spiritual process”

So it works like this: we collect the flowers in big containers and they are taken to our factories. There the women sort them by type and also take out bits of waste like string or plastic. Then there are different processes for each of our products. If we are creating our biofertiliser, we compost the flowers using the process of vermicomposting – so earthworms digest everything, making it 100 percent chemical-free. If it’s for the incense, the flowers go into a separate section where they are dried and then ground into a kind of flour, which is then mixed with natural additives like corn husks and then hand-rolled into incense.

The big containers used for collecting flowers.

A worker rolling incense.

Women sorting flowers.

We have a good relationship with the temples we work with. People got used to the idea of putting their flowers in the collection bins rather than in the water. I’m not saying that people will never throw their flowers in the Ganges again, but it’s a much better collection process now. The flowers are repurposed into either biofertiliser, which can be used to grow more flowers, or incense, which is a religious product – so the flowers go back into the spiritual process.

HelpUsGreen’s flowercycling programme stops on average 44 kilograms of toxic chemicals from getting into the river every day. The company has lots of plans for expansion, including opening up a new flowercycling factory and aiming to provide livelihoods to 2,100 manual scavenger women by 2019.

Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist