Inside EcoTrash, the student start-up taking trashing into the 21st century

EcoTrash logo

An article about trashing, you say, even though term has been cancelled? Even those accustomed to the unusual will be taken by surprise. Yet for all that happens today, it won’t change the facts of the past, one of those being that I had the pleasure of sitting down with Prateek Mehan, the brains (and the brawn too, as you’ll see) behind EcoTrash. We spoke at the end of Hilary term, at a time when social distancing was still a foreign concept, and Prateek was anticipating his biggest term yet.

When we spoke, EcoTrash hadn’t even been selling its environmentally-friendly trashing products for a full year, but the social enterprise, founded in the spring of 2019 from Prateek’s home, now sells a full range of trashing products to 28 colleges. Adjusting to the rapid growth quickly became his biggest challenge. Prateek reckons he spends about 2 hours a day working on EcoTrash. He regularly finds himself in the library, but he gets sidetracked when a supplier bails on an order or he suddenly needs to arrange a delivery. An engineer, he had exams scheduled for last year, this year, and next year, when he expects to graduate. Balancing the work and, well, other work, is a fine art.

Prateek is the sole founder of the company and although his trusted advisor, Sivesh Sukumar, is involved in the strategy side, Prateek is the one who fulfils the same-day delivery guarantee for every order. And these orders are often big. EcoTrash supplies to JCRs and MCRs, as well as students. Although sometimes JCRs lack the funds, those at Mansfield, Wadham, and Worcester have placed orders, as well as St John’s, whose JCR spent £625 in Trinity ’19 on products sold on to students at cost.

He describes one rainy evening of cycling from his college, Oriel, to St Hugh’s with 9 orders – the most popular product from the online EcoTrash store is the full pack of trashing necessities. However, as he soon found out, this customer had ordered 10 packs, not 9. He’d have to make the trip again with the remaining set. Despite the resulting four trips from Oriel to Hugh’s and back, Prateek is not one to shine a light on the negatives: “I had an extra workout on the legs.”

Most nights of term, you can rely on Prateek being out there, delivering EcoTrash products around Oxford. “It’s quite therapeutic to just listen to some music and cycle around. I enjoy running this; it’s a nice feeling when people really enjoy supporting it.” Most exams fall in Trinity, and even after noting it can be difficult to cope, he makes clear that he enjoys “ironing out all the inefficiencies” as term goes on.

So what’s behind this willingness to work so hard on it? After all, EcoTrash’s busiest times are also his busiest times personally: exam season. Trinity term in particular is a busy time, particularly the end. “Seventh and eighty week was just crazy; people are really in need of last minute deliveries.

Prateek founded EcoTrash almost 14 months ago and the social enterprise now supplies 28 colleges around Oxford.

“It’s like my little baby. It’s genuinely the mission to come to Oxford, make this big difference, especially on the environment with a long tradition that’s never changed. It’s been crap, it’s been terrible. People don’t think about it (the environmental consequences of trashing).” In fact, Prateek mentions the word ‘mission’ 7 times in our conversation; ‘movement’ pops up 4 times. His desire to leave Oxford having made a lasting difference to the way we celebrate the end of our exams is clear.

EcoTrash makes a small profit, but he tells me that given the amount of money it makes, his only plausible motivation can be this mission to make a difference. “If I actually wanted to earn money, I’d just get a job because that’d actually pay more per hour than what I’m doing now. I can’t just lose money because I have this dream of EcoTrash being a thing.”

He has been criticised for the potential to make a profit. Notably, the student union passed on the opportunity to work with EcoTrash, working instead with the Green Trashing campaign. The current Oxford SU VP Charities and Community, Kaya Axelsson, stressed the difference between the non-profit Green Trashing campaign and the profit-making EcoTrash enterprise. She told me that “the SU gave support and money to Green Trashing [which] was doing this for free. They bought and sold materials at no profit and EcoTrash decided to do the same but as a business.”

However, Prateek isn’t going to change. “At the end of the day, this project, regardless of whether it makes money or not, brings benefits to Oxford and society and therefore we should encourage it. That’s my argument. We are doing something that no one’s ever done. No one’s ever gone to the effort or (taken) the initiative.”

Indeed, EcoTrash stands out as the most established organisation in this very niche industry. Running a surplus one year is important if subsequent years see a loss. For example, this term EcoTrash will still have fixed costs and some contractual obligations to meet, despite the presumptive lack of actual trashing, so they might make a loss. That said, they rarely have much money lying about anyway. All orders have to be paid up front because EcoTrash can’t afford to pay its suppliers before the money comes in.

There is no bitterness with the student union either. Not much at least. The student union has typically sold trashing products in pop-up stores which are open for three days a term (once in week 5, week 8, and week 9), rather than online. Prateek pauses, “which is good I guess for some people on the day.” That pause is enough to tell me what he thinks of their method, but he says the situation works well at the moment. “I’ve been to the event and they sell out and that’s great. That’s a product out there, that is good. I just think we both know that you’d get more out there if you’re actually doing it (via an) online store.

“I’m happy with them to do their own thing. Even if they take customers away from me I don’t care. They’re doing the right things. I’m just trying to target the other people that are not captured by them. Everyone talks about new companies moving online; this is the future, and you have to adapt to that and that’s what EcoTrash does.”

Speaking of the future though, Prateek is meant to graduate next year. What happens to EcoTrash when he leaves university? “It’s something I would want to stay involved in but I’m a big believer of, I don’t want to say legacy, but to start letting this pass down and let people take it on. They have different ideas and stuff, but it would be something that I’d want to stay in touch with and advise future people.” He takes to my suggestion of a company board: “yeah, exactly, I can be chairman and I can look over and say yes, that’s a good idea or whatever. We’ll see, I’ve got one more year after this to think about the future.

“It’s genuinely the mission to come to Oxford, make this big difference, especially on the environment with a long tradition that’s never changed. It’s been crap, it’s been terrible. People don’t think about it.”

Prateek Mehan on changing the trashing tradition.

“To be entrenched in Oxford society, that’s the biggest aim of mine, to make it the main thing for people go to for trashing things.” He puts his sharp growth in sales partly down to the nature of the times. Earlier in the day, Greta Thunberg had visited Lady Margaret Hall, and she is a symptom of growing concern in society about the environment. Prateek is considering hiring people to make deliveries he doesn’t have the time to make himself. “I think maybe this year is the right time for first to bring someone on board to understand how it works and maybe they can take it on from me. That’s something that’s on my mind.” He says by the end of this term he’ll have a good idea about how to continue the EcoTrash movement, which he started designing when Oxford’s main party shop, Celebrations, closed in 2018.

After Celebrations closed, Prateek saw his chance to make a difference. “After Celebrations got shut down, I thought ‘where are people going to get their trashing equipment?’ And then I knew that I could start something like this and I could just sell normal trashing equipment, but I felt like if I could actually start a thing, why don’t I actually do something that’s going to be beneficial? That’s when I bought in eco-friendly products. Let’s do this properly: same day delivery, trying to make it as cheap as possible because at the end of the day, a lot of people are motivated by accessibility and price; that’s just the truth.”

Greta met Malala Yousafzai in February at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford.
Greta has been a driving force behind the movement to reduce our environmental damage. Prateek enjoyed seeing this “iconic” image from when Greta met Malala Yousafzai in February at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. Photo: @malala.

Blending popularity and the environment is another difficult balancing act. Notably, EcoTrash sells shaving foam, a crucial trashing ingredient, whilst plastic features in some of its packaging. For Prateek, if including shaving foam attracts enough new customers, which at least takes them away from environmentally harmful confetti and powder, the good can outweigh the bad. “There’s people that don’t necessarily think about the environment, but I thought that same day delivery can draw them in and they will be buying these products without actually realising the impact.

“Let’s put the effort in making it same day delivery. Let’s get it cheap so students can buy it. Let’s introduce new products, which is going to push people away from all the bad stuff.” Some of these new products include the popular personalised white sashes and water guns. EcoTrash is trying to appeal to two groups: purists who want to minimise their environmental impact every step of the way, and those for whom environmental impact is just one of many priorities.

Prateek is adamant that both groups should be acknowledged. Exciting new products “attract a lot of people and actually this is going to do a lot greater good than not. A lot of my friends have said to me, ‘have you thought about the impacts of shaving foam?’ I’ve spent, trust me, a good five to six hours, just spending a lot of time, researching into the implications.”

Prateek feels a sense of pressure and responsibility at EcoTrash. The climate crisis is a touchy subject, so criticism can be sharp. “A lot of people forget that I’m investing a lot of my time into this, which is not just time as in the minutes in the day, but also minutes away from revision for my exams. At the end of the day I have to leave this university with a degree. I’m spending two hours a day working on this, trying to make sure this project is not going to crumble and it’s not going to just be something that’s going to be shrugged off [to] the side. That’s something I hope people realise is the challenge as well in all of this.

“The support has been fantastic overall; a lot of people are congratulating me, saying ‘this is excellent work’, and I’m very humbled by it, but it’s never enough because I know there’s always more we can do. I don’t want it to be 28 colleges. I want it to be 38. I don’t want it to be one person from this college. I want it to be 50% of the college population understanding that EcoTrash is the best place for trashing. That’s something that I’m driven to and I need to make sure I get through that very quickly.”

A frequent volunteer, Prateek has always been motivated by the communal good. After spending time in a charity shop, he learnt sign language to communicate with disabled children at a school where he volunteered for two years. He recalls with glee the time he managed to communicate with a deaf person in a supermarket about finding bicarbonate of soda (and the horror of suddenly having to spell the phrase).

“I’m super privileged to have an education. I am so fortunate to go to a university like this. It’s something that my parents always said to me: giving back whenever you can. What you’ve got has to be given back, it’s like a circle almost.” At Oriel, the community spirit plays right to Prateek’s preferences. “Everyone goes to hall, everyone knows each other; it’s very much that Oriel is a family.” Indeed, the community spirit continues at EcoTrash today, where the home page sells recycled fabric carnations with a personalised message; profits are split between two charities. In a sense, this embodies the full EcoTrash spirit: adapting to the current context and still determined to make a difference.