It was winter 2015, and software engineer Ankit Agarwal noticed something disturbing in the ghats of the River Ganges in Kanpur. People celebrating Makar Sankranti, India’s annual harvest festival, were performing surya namaskars (yoga exercises) in polluted water. They also drank from it.
But the source of the pollution, he came to discover, stemmed from an unexpected place: flowers. Some 8 million tons of fresh flowers, which are offered in ritual to deities in temples across the country, are dumped into rivers each year in India because they cannot be discarded — it’s considered disrespectful. But many of the blooms are loaded with pesticides and insecticides that enter the river system and harm marine life.
That a place of such peace could become so dirty bothered Agarwal. So in July 2017 he decided to do something about it, to “repurpose this waste coming from places of worship” into a product, but still with a spiritual purpose. Phool (“flower” in Hindi), a company he created with a childhood friend, collects the flowers at the source and turns them into incense and other products.
The process of “flowercycling” works like this: Phool collects the flowers from the temples before they can be dumped into the rivers. At a factory in the city, they are sorted by hand, and any plastic, string and silver foil is removed. The flowers are sprayed with bioculum, which helps clean off chemicals, then washed and sun-dried. These are treated and dipped in essential oils before being rolled out into incense sticks and cones. Any remaining greenery is treated with cow dung and used with earthworms to make vermicompost (which is also sold).
Flower residue, especially from temples, has an emotional significance to communities.
Mangesh Gupte, a Mumbai-based environmentalist
Much of this work is done by hand — and by women. Over a hundred local women are employed by the factory, including Preeti Shukla, 31, who has been rolling out incense sticks since the Kanpur unit opened. With this job she’s now able to save money to buy a home. “I now have more time to spend with my kids,” she says, “and I find that there is greater respect in my community for the work I’m doing.”
Flower residue, especially from temples, has an emotional significance to communities, says Mangesh Gupte, a Mumbai-based environmentalist who focuses on innovations in water and sanitation. He sees flowercycling as a “excellent way to scientifically manage that temple waste while still respecting tradition.” Phool sells a few dozen of the products on its website, with incense sticks and cones ranging in price from 145 rupees ($2) to 165 rupees ($2.33) per package, and via retailers like India Amazon.
But the operation is small, processing around 3,000 tons of flowers annually. Scaling up the idea and bringing it to more locations could prove challenging. Also “processing the chemical residue from flowers, especially in large quantities, has to be done carefully,” Gupte says. It requires space and skilled hands, both of which are in short supply.
Still, Phool is growing. It’s developed a biodegradable alternative to Styrofoam and plastic packaging wrap — “we call it Florafoam,” explains Agarwal — where dried petals are molded with natural fungi. While Styrofoam takes thousands of years to degrade, Florafoam can be composted by the consumer or buried in their garden. Phool is also looking to replicate their flowercycling model in four other Indian cities.
“Often, complex problems can have simple solutions,” says Agarwal. “We’re in the business of turning flower into power.”