At just 18 years old, Udit Singhal describes himself as a social entrepreneur, tech enthusiast, artist, golfer. He also has a keen eye for ways technology can solve the pressing problem of mountains of glass being dumped into landfills in his native India — and the ambition to do something about it. On 18 September 2020, the United Nations announced that Singhal had been chosen as one of 17 young people in its latest class of 17 Young Leaders for the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) because of his work in creating Glass2Sand, a zero-waste initiative formed in 2018 that turns glass bottles into sand.
The young leaders come from around the world and are selected because of their contributions to sustainable development. Asked what inspired him to start the initiative, Mr Singhal, who is currently studying Management Science at University College London, said:
“Observing a looming crisis in Delhi, I concluded that glass, despite being recyclable and reusable, is not segregated anymore and actively goes for dumping into already scarce landfill space – where it won’t decompose for a million years! At age 16, with a determination to act on this observation, I founded Glass2Sand, a zero-waste ecosystem that stops glass bottles from being dumped in landfills and crushes them into commercially valuable silica sand.”
And the silica sand created by the initiative certainly is valuable. As Mr Singhal explains:
“The sand produced is used in construction, foundry linings and other applications. With bottles changing form to sand, any possibility of counterfeiting is also “crushed”. The silica rich sand by-product is sold, and this covers the costs of the operation.”
Such is the ingenuity of Glass2Sand, turning glass bottle waste into a highly valuable new product.
Of course, the actual process of turning the glass bottles into sand is not Glass2Sand’s only task – it also has to collect glass bottle waste, and in quite significant quantities in order to be effective. Mr Singhal spoke about how he encouraged volunteers to pass on their bottles to Glass2Sand.
“Bottle-collection is managed through a volunteer network that responded to Glass2Sand’s internet and social media campaign. I created a website and extensive national mainstream media coverage helped amplify awareness. The awareness campaign “Drink Responsibly, Dispose Responsibly” was launched by the Ambassador of Hungary to India in October 2019.”
Since its creation, Glass2Sand has gathered a group of 120 volunteers, allowing it to prevent over 10,000 bottles being dumped in landfills and produced over 6,000 kilograms of high-grade silica sand. It has also created quite a following, with 200,000 plus website hits and over 12,600 social media likes.
Despite this, its innovative technology is yet to be widely used around the globe. Asked why other countries should join the Glass2Sand initiative, Mr Singhal responded:
“Glass2Sand will be a useful addition, especially to countries where the glass waste crisis is growing and recycling is not effective. With awareness of the glass waste problem, the crisis can be nipped in the bud so that it doesn’t assume the gigantic proportions that plastic has.
This state-of-the-art project creates a sustainable eco-system in a manner that hasn’t been done earlier. The project is modular, easily scalable and can be adopted by any like-minded organisation. The commercially viable by-product allows the affordable one-time setup cost and low running costs to be offset with a steady revenue stream.”
Does he hope Glass2Sand will continue to grow?
“Glass2Sand modules will answer the call to action in any location where glass bottle waste poses a menace. Discussions with like-minded organisations are in progress to replicate the project other cities. Our campaigns are being streamlined so that they may reach out to more potential stakeholders and new locations are being identified where there exists a growing glass waste crisis.”
Young Leaders for the SDGs
Mr Singhal’s ambitions for his initiative are likely to be aided by his selection to become a Young Leader for the SDGs, a group that aims to support other young people in the realisation of the SDGs through strategic opportunities with the UN and through their own existing initiatives. Mr Singhal told us what his work in his Young Leader role had involved so far.
“I have been developing strategies to turn attention to glass waste and make #noglasstolandfills a movement. I am galvanising the youth through speaking engagements emphasising the need to act towards the SDGs. In November 2020, I met the UN Secretary General, H.E. Mr. Antonio Guterres to discuss the opportunities to drive the SDGs and have been closely working with the UN Office of the Secretary-General’s Envoy.”
According to Mr Singhal the world faces the following challenges and obstacles in trying to achieve the SDGs:
“Seeking comfort, being averse to change, conflict, and the unwillingness to adopt more expensive sustainable practices for me remain the overarching obstacles to achieving the SDGs. The “whats in it for me” behaviour, which is change adverse, hinders progress due to the lack of any cost-benefit analysis. Beyond this, financing is critical. Lack of mobilisation of resources across all parts of the world impedes the SDGs. The COVID Pandemic has only elevated and highlighted the looming crisis, making the world aware of how behind we are in the goal to attain the SDGs by 2030.”
Despite these huge challenges, the work and ambition of Mr Singhal – as well as of the sixteen other Young Leaders – show that positive, effective action is possible, offering us all hope for a greener, more sustainable future.