For over four years now, Sonali Phadke has been in love with waste. She is a professional upcycler. And her constant appeal to everyone is segregate, segregate, segregate at source.
Sonali has been a partner at Studio Alternatives (SA) with cofounder Dhara Kabaria since 2017. The enterprise is built on the concept of eliminating waste. Along with her work as an interior designer, Dhara had already initiated work in upcycling using her furniture related scrap for a decade now.
Once we get rid of the idea of “waste”, we have a source of raw material, which can be reused creatively to make any number of products, says Sonali.
Left: Sonali (in orange dupatta) and Dhara. The workspace at Studio Alternatives
For the past few years, SA has worked extensively with shipping containers. Once SA works on a container and converts it into a home or office or any other kind of room, its life is extended from 3 years to 20-25 years!
This video is a wonderful description of SA’s work with containers: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9aPC2xhkTBM
Sonali’s journey to Studio Alternatives was slow and steady.
When she did the Ecological Society (ES) course in 2001-02, she left with the resolve to make changes in her work without jumping out to save the entire planet. Very pragmatically, she wanted to use the skills she had and the ES ideals to make ecologically sound decisions. Right from the beginning, she set her sights on impactful projects that would allow her to work in applied ecology.
But the most important takeaway for Sonali from the Ecological Society course was the connection between environment and economics, which she hadn’t come across elsewhere. The Sustainable Management of Natural Resources and Nature Conservation course drove home the subsidised way of looking at life, and the way that real costs of products are hidden. It showed her that there are no profits in nature, and yet we have an economy which runs on profits.
Sonali reminisces, “It was a different way of looking at life. And life could never be ‘peaceful’ after that. Everything (Professor Prakash) Gole Sir was saying was painfully evident.” The course stays with you, and is like a guideline for making choices throughout life, she adds.
After the course, Sonali started by volunteering with her batchmates Ketaki and Manasi in their organisation Oikos for Ecological Services , where she was a part of multiple surveys and projects. One of the projects was Nisargshala, the environment education book which will soon be published. She also did some projects with ES. She was working parallely in her family business of composites manufacturing. She had also graduated as an instrumentation and control engineer; she had finished the ES course along with the last year of engineering.
Sonali’s architect brother Saurabh Phadke is an Ecological Society alumnus, and their mother was almost an alumnus. A brief scroll through her social media shows that ecological decisions, actions and discussions are a part of her lifestyle. She has a bountiful terrace garden made on kitchen waste from her apartment building and dry leaves in the vicinity.
Concerted attempts brought Sonali, a Pune resident, to her work at SA. She shares, “The subject itself is interesting and requires immense creativity. This work is also extremely satisfying because it involves a lot of values we would like to perpetuate as a society, which includes equality and rationality of choice. Both me and Dhara feel extremely grateful that we are lucky to choose our own set of challenges while also making a living out of it.”
At SA, Sonali and Dhara also create beautiful pieces of home furnishings and decor. People enjoy these trendy pieces for their quirkiness. “Awareness has been increasing, and upcycling is catching on. People might not decorate their whole space with upcycled items, but will opt for a few elements, like an interesting lamp. We can see this increase in awareness during workshops. People are responsive, but it will be some time till owning upcycled pieces is an acceptable practice,” says Sonali.
Why would it take time? Sonali explains that it is hard to imagine that a resource is going to be over, when it is right before your eyes. It is harder to understand what the impact would be of the resource being over completely, says Sonali. We buy second hand objects because buying something new is expensive - not as a natural choice to save an already created resource. Besides, even though we make them functional, upcycled pieces have their own quirks because of the history they carry and many times are looked upon as art, shares Sonali.
While people get used to the idea of upcycled products, Sonali and Dhara continue working with waste. There are times when they have to hunt for material or even change the design midway, as segregation remains poor and usable raw material cannot always be retrieved from garbage. The waste hierarchy that they recommend is
Creative reuse ie Upcycling
Incinerate, when no other options
SA works on interior projects as well as corporate projects, where corporates are opting to upcycle their own scrap for their own use. SA is an experiment, and it continues to provide a robust example for more such mainstream options.
With all the work they do, they are making wealth from waste for themselves and the planet. “Profits have to be incorporated into such a venture, it cannot be run like an NGO,” says Sonali She explains further, “The costs of waste management need to be incorporated into the price, and someone needs to pay for it! Running waste management on subsidies or free of cost will only add to the way it is perceived.
There were other aspects too of Prof Gole’s teachings that are still revealing themselves to Sonali. For example, he always said that plantations are wrong. Or that we are not an agricultural society but depend on biodiversity rather than agriculture. “I have only begun to understand the depth of his learnings after having lived through many experiences.,” she says incredulously.
Apart from her work at SA, Sonali is also a part of The Grasslands Trust, which has done extensive observations of the wildlife on the grasslands near Pune. The film “Treasures of Grasslands” is one of the outcomes of their decade-long observations on these grasslands. The group has also conducted trainings for the forest department, to help them with their field work which covered vast areas.
Studio Alternative’s work goes beyond being a solution for waste. Taking care of our labour and their families and their upliftment is an important aspect of our work, says Sonali. Maharana ji, one of their workers from Orissa, did not think upcycling was of much importance. “My ancestors have made the Konark temple. Ye kaunsa Konark bana rahe hai hum? (It’s not like we are making another Konark here). But later I realized that these are concepts that I can give my juniors and children, so that at least their own surroundings remain clean.” He hopes that their studio becomes an inspiration for everyone. But he has no doubts that the people working at SA, including the partners, are “paagal” (crazy). “We need such crazy people in society. I hope I can make my daughter also one such crazy person!”
Moreover, they have become a part of the community of Arvi village, where the studio is located. The partners of SA spend time in the local school, where they teach English or general knowledge, and act as a medium for exposure for the kids. As they work on upcycling, they also think about ways to make the village waste free. Sonali has observed that the use-and-throw city lifestyle has become aspirational for the village. SA also repairs tools that the villagers bring, in exchange for vegetables! They are no longer outsiders in this small community.
“The best part is...”, says a content Sonali, “...there is no differentiation between what is work and what is not work. This is just how we choose to live.”
Painting in the school with Abha Bhagwat (left in the second photo)