If we take 10 per cent of the Indian population to be smokers and only considering one cigarette per day for each smoker, we get close to roughly 20,000 kg of cigarette waste every day. Naman Gupta, the founder of Noida-based startup Code Efforts Pvt. Ltd believes that these estimates are just a fraction of the real numbers which would be much higher. Code Efforts was started by Naman Gupta and his brother Vipul Gupta with the mission of collecting and recycling cigarette waste to make sustainable products such as soft toys and cushions among other products.

Vishnu Sreedethan of The EarthView recently spoke to Naman Gupta to understand the operations and scope of sustainability that the startup is targeting.

Q. Please tell us about Code Effort?

Naman Gupta: Code Efforts Pvt Ltd was started in 2018. We are into cigarette waste management and recycling. Today, in India we are the leading company and have a 100% market share in India for recycling cigarette waste. We give an end-to-end solution by collecting cigarette waste from multiple districts. The cigarette butts collected is used as raw material and brought to our factory in Noida. After processing the raw material and various quality tests, these recycled materials are used for making multiple products such as mosquito repellants, soft toys and cushions.

Q. How did you come up with this idea of recycling cigarette butts?

Naman Gupta: We identified the problem of cigarette waste in our own area in Noida in 2018. We started when we were in college. We saw the problem with cigarette butts being irresponsibly disposed of on the roadside and in cafes. After seeing our friends smoke, we noticed that they did not have adequate means of disposing of the cigarette butts. They would empty it into the trash bin. The municipality used to collect this trash and we realised that there was no recycling infrastructure in India for cigarette butts. We researched this problem and developed a solution to recycle it up to 99%.

We started creating awareness about the problem after this by distributing flyers and talking to people. We also distributed branded receptacles under the name VBins for cigarette stores through which we could collect the raw materials. Eventually, we expanded upon the business model so that we had suppliers who could provide us with the raw material in bulk in exchange for payment.

Q. What were your challenges on the ground?

Naman Gupta: In the beginning, we started by creating awareness because people did not have an understanding of the negative consequences of cigarette butts. But by spreading awareness to people who were ready to work along with us in our cause, we were able to join hands and collaborate with multiple individuals, volunteers and rag pickers.

It works as a win-win for the vendors who provide us with the cigarette waste and for us as a business. The associates who collect the waste are given the responsibility of collecting the raw material and are rewarded for the work that they do.

We took the challenges that we faced as opportunities to grow. We have a broad idea of where we want to be in five years. But, we usually plan for the business for one year only due to unpredictable changes that can come up such as the COVID lockdown. Apart from awareness, the challenges we faced were due to the seasonality of the products that we sell.

Q. Can you tell us what usually happens with cigarette butts, if not recycled?

Naman Gupta: Before we started, there was no mechanism to manage or recycle cigarette waste. The technology we have is the only one available right now. There are many scientists and researchers who are trying to tackle this problem. There are various research papers which have tried to understand the adversity faced due to cigarette waste, however, there were no solutions.

A cigarette butt was not considered a waste in India as per laws, whereas it should be considered as a hazardous material because of the presence of cellulose acetate which is a polymer and is harmful as it takes 10-12 years to decompose. This was till 2018. As far as we know, as of Aug 2020, the National Green Tribunal has given notification to state governments to recycle cigarette butts.

Q. How do you conduct the logistics of your raw material collection? How can cigarette sellers get in touch with you to recycle the waste they generate?

Naman Gupta: For Delhi, Noida and Gurgaon, we can send our own representatives to collect the raw materials. Or if it is in districts such as Bangalore, the stores or waste collectors can get in touch with our associates working in Karnataka, who would collect the cigarette waste and send it to us. Out of 718 districts in India, we are already operating in close to 200-250 districts and this is within a very short period. Our target is to work pan-India.

In Karnataka, we have teams in districts such as Mysore, Mandya and Kodagu among many others. These are associates who help us with the collection of raw materials.

Q. Can you explain how you recycle and manufacture your products?

Naman Gupta: We generally get two categories of materials that come to our factory - non-separated and separated, which are delivered from the associates.

The cigarette waste consists of a paper covering and the polymer is inside. We get a fraction of leftover tobacco as well. If a smoker has smoked a cigarette, and the butt is collected as it is, that is considered non-separated.

If on the other hand, the associate has team members who can separate the parts manually, we consider this as separate. After separation, the three parts are packed in separate bags and sent to our factory - the tobacco, paper and the polymer.

If we receive the separated material, we make mosquito repellents using paper. The paper pulp is extracted, colours, fragrances and organic binders are added and it is drawn out in sheets. It is dried after this and sold in the market under the brand name NMOSQ.

From the tobacco, we make organic compost. This is usually a 20-30 day process and we get it in the form of a powder. This powder can then be used in plantations.

The polymer is first shredded in a machine and passed through a 24-hour chemical treatment process. It is then washed and dried. After processing, multiple quality checks are carried out and fibres are made softer using further processes and then used to make cushions, soft toys, mattresses and handicrafts and sold under the brand name VMAKE.

Q. As a final statement, what are the statistics of cigarette butts in India?

Naman Gupta: Cigarette butts are the most littered item and on top of that, they are also the most ignored item. We are a population of more than 130 crore people. Even if we consider 10 per cent of the population to be smokers, around 10-15 crore people are smoking at least 1 cigarette each day. So if 10 crore cigarettes are being smoked each day and 1 kg requires 5,000 cigarette butts, we can roughly estimate close to 20,000 kg of cigarette waste generated each day.

I do not believe that it is only 10 crore cigarettes being smoked each day, the actual number will be shocking and much more than this number. So whatever we are doing now is just one drop of the entire ocean. If we can do this for the entire nation, we can do wonders and I am determined enough to do this.