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MIT student’s start-up tries to help wastepickers turn into micro-entrepreneurs

Union Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted about the start-up earlier this week and congratulated the founders.

Written by Parthasarathi Biswas | Pune | Published: March 9, 2018 8:47:47 am
mit students, wastepickers, micro entrepreneurs, harsimrat kaur badal, indian express A Swach segregation shed where wastepickers produce filaments for 3D printers

When technology tries to solve an environmental problem, results are multi-faceted and can range from solving a burning environmental issue to generating jobs at the grassroot level. Protoprint — a Pune-based start-up in the field of filament production — is trying to help wastepickers become micro-entrepreneurs by helping them use technology to convert waste plastic into filaments for 3D printers. Union Minister for Food Processing Harsimrat Kaur Badal tweeted about the start-up earlier this week and congratulated the founders.

The journey of Protoprint started in 2013, when Siddhant Pai, a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, started thinking about the problem of disposal of plastic waste. At the time, his father, Jayant Paim, a computer scientist, who is also a director of Protoprint, had started experimenting with 3D printing, while his mother, Suchismita, also a director, was involved in writing about wastepickers’ cooperative Swach. Talking about the journey, Jayant said his son became interested in disposal of plastic waste when he came home during his summer vacations .

“The idea was simple — to use technology and convert discarded plastic into filaments for 3D printers,” said Jayant. But the start-up had a bigger social dimension to it, and the founders wanted to use this venture to generate grassroots-level entrepreneurs. Accordingly, Swach was roped in and the first 40-member team was formed, which was to operate out of a Swach segregation shed in Kothrud. “We set up the necessary machinery. Of the 40 women, 30 were involved in regular collection of waste while the other 10 ran the machinery and were involved in the production of filaments,” he said.

In scientific parlance, Protoprint works with a special class of plastic called high density polyethylene (HDPE). This sturdy plastic is used for moulding bottles and pipes due to its durability and constitutes 30 per cent of the plastic waste generated. “Mostly, wastepickers sell their collected stock of HDPE at a rate of Rs 15-20 per kg. Our process enables them to generate a kg of filament per kg of such plastic collected, which obviously will sell at a much higher price,” said Jayant.

At present, filaments for 3D printers are priced anything between Rs 2,000 and Rs 4,000 per kg, with Jayant mentioning that they hope to price their filaments at a highly competitive rate.

But during the process, they noticed that the filaments got wrapped, so they teamed up with the Pune-based National Chemical Laboratory (NCL) to find a solution to the problem. Meanwhile, this initiative was awarded a two-year grant by the department of science and technology. At present, Jayant said they are very close to finding the ‘magic reagent’, which will help in stopping the problem of wrapping and hope to go for the commercial production of filaments by June.

While NCL has filed provisional patents for the chemicals involved in the process, Jayant said they aim to keep the main technology open for use. “Our aim is to help in the creation of grassroots-level entrepreneurs,” he said.

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