Big Ideas: “How to help consumers, workplaces, and brands to go #PlasticNeutral” with Svanika Balasubramanian, founder of rePurpose

The more people who become actively invested in healing our environment and ending the global plastic crisis, the further we can scale our impact. Go #PlasticNeutral today! Then go one step further, and become a Workplace Champion to push your workplace or business to take responsibility for its plastic footprint. Asa part of my series […]

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The more people who become actively invested in healing our environment and ending the global plastic crisis, the further we can scale our impact. Go #PlasticNeutral today! Then go one step further, and become a Workplace Champion to push your workplace or business to take responsibility for its plastic footprint.

Asa part of my series about “Big Ideas That Might Change The World In The Next Few Years” I had the pleasure of interviewing Svanika Balasubramanian, the founder of rePurpose, a social enterprise building a community of conscious consumers, workplaces, and brands going #PlasticNeutral. rePurpose is building one of the world’s first plastic credit platforms with the goal of eliminating ocean plastic and empowering marginalized waste workers in developing countries. Hailing from Oman and India, Svanika is a 2018 Wharton grad from the University of Pennsylvania, and is passionate about pushing ahead the charge for our future circular economy.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

I grew up on the shores of the Arabian sea in Oman with this profound love for all things nature. Nothing beats a warm sandy beach and fresh sea breeze. My grandparents meanwhile were social activists in India and I was raised with this core tenet that empowering one’s community was as important as empowering one’s self.

I never expected that I’d be creating a career around trash, I doubt anyone does. But my work with rePurpose was an unexpected yet beautiful amalgamation of those two concepts — we are building something that helps protects our oceans and our vulnerable ecosystems and something that simultaneously provides stable livelihoods to waste workers in developing countries. At rePurpose we help consumers measure their plastic footprint and impact on the environment, then enable them to become #PlasticNeutral by offsetting their consumption while also supporting organizations that lift hard-working waste workers out of poverty.

I’m constantly grateful to my team at rePurpose, my co-founders Peter and Aditya for creating such a unique journey. We have found ourselves in some of the world’s largest dumping grounds, spent our holidays wading through rivers of garbage — and I really wouldn’t have it any other way.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?

All of my most interesting experiences come from working in the field. I remember having this long conversation with a waste picker in Mumbai a few months back — we spoke at length about his hopes and dreams for the future, how he had been picking waste in dumping grounds since he was a little kid, and how he often went without two meals a day. And at the very end of the conversation, I asked him for his phone number and he replied that I should add him on Facebook as that was the best way to stay in touch. It was a jarring experience because it showed the dichotomy in the way our society has progressed — we live in a world where it’s much easier to access Facebook than it is to find a job that provides three square meals a day.

How do you think rePurpose can change the world?

Well, we think of ourselves as ecosystem enablers — at rePurpose, we are building a platform that allows conscious individuals and organizations to come together to fund solutions that can solve our world’s plastic crisis.

We help consumers, workplaces, and businesses i.) measure their plastic footprint, ii.) take responsibility for it by funding the recovery and recycling of an equivalent amount of plastic waste, and iii.) receive personalized tips and tools going forward to reduce their plastic consumption in a gamified manner.

We have made it incredibly simple and efficient for them to connect with and support solutions that genuinely work.

Keeping “Black Mirror” and the “Law of Unintended Consequences” in mind, can you see any potential drawbacks about this idea that people should think more deeply about?

That’s a really interesting question. I think one thing we are trying to actively guard against is the increase in unchecked and unsustainable consumption if people think they can simply absolve themselves of their ‘environmental debt’ by offsetting their plastic waste.

Yes, the first step in the right direction is increasing the volume of plastic waste that is diverted away from our oceans and landfills, but the secondstep should be a reduction in the manufacturing and consumption of low-value plastic packaging, especially single-use plastics.

Was there a “tipping point” that led you to this idea? Can you tell us that story?

My co-founders and I first became involved in this space because we wrote our thesis at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania on the nature of the informal recycling sector in developing countries. As part of our field research for this, we found ourselves in Deonar, one of Asia’s largest landfills. We were walking through these mountains of garbage, clenching our noses at the smell and the flies, with the glittering skyline of the growing city of Mumbai rising in the horizon — and we just had this quiet moment of horror at how abysmally we had failed in managing our consumption.

It was on the rickshaw ride back home that evening that the idea of rePurpose was born — when we realized that the only way to approach such a global problem was with a globally applicable unified solution where consumers could make a direct impact.

What do you need to lead this idea to widespread adoption?

The more people who become actively invested in healing our environment and ending the global plastic crisis, the further we can scale our impact. Go #PlasticNeutral today! Then go one step further, and become a Workplace Champion to push your workplace or business to take responsibility for its plastic footprint.

What are 5 things you someone told you before you started rePurpose and why

  1. Build toward the Big Vision: We are believers of the lean startup model and thinking small. But at the same time it’s important to know where you want to be going. Having a clear vision keeps you from getting distracted, especially during the early stages of a startup when there seem to be so many different options to explore.
  2. Build it with the right team: A good team of people who share your vision, bring genuine energy and creativity to the table, and see things with different perspectives — that’s what really pushes things forward. At rePurpose, we have a team from five different countries, ranging in backgrounds from financial services to graphic design, but we’re all here trying to make that big vision a reality. It makes every day so much more interesting.
  3. There’s going to be a lot of No’s: I don’t think anyone is truly prepared for all the setbacks you face when you’re trying to get a new startup off the ground. There’s going to be a lot of “No’s”, a lot of unexpected pushbacks, a range of critiques — it sounds very cliche but there’s nothing more important than the resilience to swing back out there fighting.
  4. Listen to the critics: This is really a caveat to my previous point. Yes, it’s important to be resilient, but I think it’s also important to recognize when things need to pivot or be improved. A lot of our interesting innovations, like the variety in our impact project options, for example, were born out of active conversations with some of our strongest critics.
  5. Partnerships can be extremely useful: It’s a difficult road to go on alone. Partnering with other organizations and people to push things forward will accelerate the journey. rePurpose is indebted to all the different waste management enterprises, and businesses who have helped us tie the platform together.

The future of work is a common theme. What can one do to “future proof” their career?

I think to “future proof” a career the most important lesson is to keep an open mind and keep learning. The best way to prepare for the future is to not stagnate. It’s hard for the world to overtake you if you’re growing with the world.

Based on the future trends in your industry, if you had a million dollars, what would you invest in?

I would invest in true closed-loop systems. One of the biggest issues with our waste management today is that we are trying to recover plastic waste after it has been discarded. Instead, we should be building systems that allow us to reuse and recycle our plastic before it ends up in the garbage bin. Think the old-school milkman model repurposed to be economical and efficient in today’s world.

Which principles or philosophies have guided your life? Your career?

Each step, however small, does matter. I think the sheer magnitude of some of the issues we face at a global scale can deter people from even trying to make a difference. From climate change to the plastic crisis, to even things like youth unemployment, and poor healthcare — the problems seem too big and unmanageable. But big impact starts with small changes. Going to a beach clean-up and recovering even ten pounds of plastic from the ocean matters, sponsoring the education of one child matters. It is this same guiding principle that we hold at the core of rePurpose as well.

Can you share what you think are the most important “success habits” or “success mindsets”?

Entrepreneurship and the constant ‘hustle’ mindset is often too romanticized. Yes, it’s important to work hard and grind it out until the results start coming in. But I truly believe that it is also extremely beneficial to know when to take a break. Have little pockets of re-energizing activities embedded in your calendar. These can be crucial in protecting you from burn out.

Some very well known VCs read this column. If you had 60 seconds to make a pitch to a VC, what would you say?

At rePurpose, we are reimagining the way the world does plastic. We provide simple, cost-effective, efficient solutions for individuals, workplaces, and businesses to go #PlasticNeutral by funding waste recovery and recycling solutions worldwide. Join us today at!

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