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Glass Half Full | Pradyumna K Rao, Samsara TRC

‘Samsara The Recycle Company’ is a design and manufacturing house that works largely with materials that are deemed as "waste". It is co-founded by Pradyumna K Rao and Mridhula Chandramohan. As designers they are constantly creating products out of mere sketches. Samsara believes that this power comes with a lot of responsibility. The materials being used, where and how they are sourced, and their ecological impact are all factors that form the basis of Samsara’s ideology.

We interviewed Pradyumna Rao, Samsara’s co-founder, to know the inside story of his journey with Samsara and to understand how the company strives to make the glass half full.

How was Samsara TRC conceived?

Mridhula and I, architects by profession, were working on a few freelance projects, but we wanted to explore work beyond architecture. We were interested in product design, but not the standard wood and metal products; we wanted to experiment. This led us to first understand where the material is coming from, and what it’s afterlife is. We explored and understood the life-cycle of various materials. Then we decided to make products out of waste materials. For this, there were two options- upcycling it and recycling it. We experimented with recycling the material to create something fresh out of it.

The first material that we wanted to experiment with was plastic, as we all know that plastic waste exists abundantly. We came across ‘Precious Plastic’, an open source digital commons project that provides tools, knowledge and designs for decentralising the plastic recycling. Started in the Netherlands, Precious Plastic is involved in the collection of the waste by individuals, all the way to the final product. But when it comes to India, the context is completely different. There are many people involved in collecting plastic waste but the transparency about what happens to the waste is missing.

An informal supply chain already exists in the Indian society, which is involved in collecting waste. It is the backbone of recycling in India, run by micro businesses, individuals and rag-pickers. Rather than trying to compete with these people, we thought it would be better to work with them.

We could use the raw materials from them and we could also share with the customers what is happening to their waste. We decided to get involved in the manufacturing and designing of the products made from these waste materials. For two and a half years, we have been involved in R&D to understand how these machines work and the specifications of the material. As architects, we had absolutely no knowledge of the material and its manufacturing. So the first two and a half years were just about understanding all of that.

Table from Unity Collection © Samsara TRC

We knew that we wanted to create something that was open-ended yet different. But we had not decided on a product category or a target market. We were directly going to the consumer. We had no idea of the various business models that exist. It was a trial and error , lots of failures that led us to understand the material better. Later, we realised that we should cater to one target market and create products based on that. We started with recycled plastic sheets that could be treated like plywood, could be manufactured easily, and could give the flexibility of making different kinds of products. These sheets allowed us to make a table, a chair and a coaster, all from one. Each product doesn’t require a different mould. We managed to keep it open-ended, as envisioned.

Tell us about your products.

In India, furniture is a great product category. Even in the end-life of the product, there is a high possibility that it comes back to the recycling chain, because of the large informal market. We knew that it would not be wasted unnecessarily. There is a market for second hand furniture also.

We use a single type of plastic, so that it can go back to the local kabadiwalas, at the end of its cycle.

If someone in Mumbai buys our products, they don’t need to send it back to us to recycle, they can just give it to local kabadiwalas who can recycle. The products are marked with the type of plastic used and this makes it easier for them to understand.

For us it was important to look into the entire life-cycle of the product. If you shred plastic with a screw, the shredder may get damaged. So, if there are screws used, screws should be visible, making it easier to remove them. The extraction and segregation of materials is very important. These are the minor things we look into. We have set limitations/parameters along which we try to work our product out.

I will take you through two products and the ideas behind them, Unity Shelf and Stacked Lamp. The idea for the shelf was to push the material to its maximum. The shelf is made from a 4’x 2’ sheet. We wanted to create something larger but the size of these sheets would make a very small shelf. With this concern, we developed the ‘Unity Collection’. It brings together elements which are not strong individually, but the coming together of these elements creates something much larger and stronger.

Unity Shelf © Samsara TRC

Unlike wood which you can sand-off to get a finished product, one has to route the edges of these recycled plastic products as the tools being used are not made for plastic. During routing, flakes are generated. We have been collecting all these materials hoping that it will come in handy someday. While developing the products for RAW Collaborative with Anjali Mody, we created the second product, the Stacked lamp from these flakes. It has a craft element attached to it, as three people are involved in making one product and requires a mould to get its shape. It has pores, as it is made from flakes, which allow the light to filter out. We chose a more artistic method of manufacturing as we needed to be able to control the amount of material at any given spot. We had to ensure the Stacked Lamp was strong enough but not too thick, allowing enough light out. This product was an attempt to minimise wastage of the materials.

Plastic as a material has a negative connotation attached to it. It is generally very monotonous, plain, there is not much happening to it, and it is perceived as being a very cheap product. So we wanted to kind of do away with that look and feel of plastic, and make the material a little exciting. We have created mosaic or terrazzo patterns for our products to invoke stone-like aesthetics. When you think of terrazzo and you think of stone, and you don’t think about it as plastic. We tried to recreate those patterns in our products.

Stacked Lamp from Unity Collection © Samsara TRC

How does your company strive to make the glass half full?

There are two ways to see the world. There is no point in being pessimistic, so we chose to be optimistic. For us, it was important what our contribution was to the problem. We didn’t want to waste time talking and complaining about the problem. Rather, we would like to take action on something that we could add value to with our knowledge. We had to look at the problem and think optimistically. As a company, it took us almost two and a half years to come up with a product that we felt would be a correct fit.

We recycle plastic waste, create open-ended products while being conscious of its afterlife.

Table from Unity Collection © Samsara TRC

What message would you like to share for our readers?

Our generation has a very comfortable life, giving us opportunities and platforms to do what we want to do. The question is what we are doing with our privilege. For us, it was important to use the platform to serve the community at large. Each of us should talk about something that is very important to us, say climate change or gender equality. Everyone is authentic in themselves, everyone can speak for themselves, can try to identify problems and bring solutions to the table.

We need more people voicing out solutions to problems rather than just sitting and complaining.

The possibility of spreading the work we do, of making people conscious about the material wastage excites us. If 100 people think about different problems, and they come up with knowledge and solutions to share with one another, the world becomes a better place. That was our idea when we started this company. Let’s keep sharing, as much as we can.


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