If you’re squeezing the last bits of toothpaste out of the tube on a particular morning, the most you’d think about it is to remind yourself to buy the next tube. The old tube is forgotten even before it ends up in your bin. But what happens to it after it gets picked up with the rest of the trash by the garbage collectors?
Most of us don’t give a second thought to the tonnes of non-biodegradable waste we churn out of our homes. But Sooraj Abraham, from Aluva in Ernakulam, thinks and cares deeply about this question.
Ask him about toothpaste tubes, for instance, and he immediately whips out a hand bag.
Take a close look and you’ll notice it’s made up entirely of discarded Colgate and Pepsodent toothpaste tubes.
“It takes about 30-40 old tubes to make a bag. The tubes are first separated from their tops manually. Then the tubes are cut into small pieces, again manually. We have no machines and everything is done by people and is labour-intensive. After the tubes are cut, they are sewn together to make the bags. The designs are chosen and created by a designated team,” explains Sooraj.
This is just one of the products produced by Plan@Earth, the Aluva-based NGO that Sooraj founded. From home décor items like wall hangings and welcome mats to stationary like pen stands and files, Plan@Earth has a range of useful and attractive products made out of trash.
From waste collection to handicraft production
Plan@Earth was launched in 2008 to work on dry waste management.
"We didn’t start off because we found there was mismanagement of dry waste, but when we saw that there was no management at all! We began to visit individual households and talked to people about the need to manage their waste effectively. What we then realised was that everyone knew the problem, but they didn't know what the solution was,” explains Sooraj.
When it comes to plastic, there is a limit to how much consumers can limit its use. You can stop using plastic utensils or plastic carry bags, but you end up buying packaged food. Anything and everything that is sold comes in plastic packets, he adds.
But soon the team realised it wasn’t just a matter of properly collecting waste, but also what to do with it. After just a few public cleaning drives, mounds of plastic cups, bottles, wrappers and various other kinds of plastic waste began to accumulate in their office.
“We traveled to several places in the south, going from vendor to vendor asking if they will take the plastic we collected. We were then told that there are as many as 52 grades of plastic and that recycling these meant that they had to be segregated at the source," Sooraj says.
Painstakingly, over the years, the organisation has built up a network of 48 recycling vendors, most of them based in Tamil Nadu, who buy the plastic waste Plan@Earth collects and recycle it. But even that wasn’t enough, as only 45 of the 52 different categories of plastic waste can be recycled.
"That's a question we asked ourselves for months together. What to do with the kinds of plastic that can’t be recycled? Slowly, we built up a team of professionals and got in touch with artisans who make handicrafts. Soon, we came up with a line of products, from wall hangings to items for home decor to different kinds of bags," says Sooraj.
Plan@Earth now collects dry waste including plastic, paper, glass and metals from as many as 20,000 households in four panchayats – Aluva, Angamaly, Paravoor and Chalakkudy. This means that the organisation collects close to 30 tonnes of dry waste every month.
Alongside its environmental commitment, Plan@Earth has also been committed to empowering women right from its inception. The organisation now employs more than 100 women from the suburbs of Ernakulam. After they are trained, these women are employed in the segregating unit and a team of 45 women go from household to household collecting the dry waste. A fee of Rs 50 is levied on the service provided.
Resistance from residents
Although Plan@Earth has been able to rope in thousands of households in their work, Sooraj admits that the process hasn't been easy.
"The thing is, we are introducing a new concept to the residents, of segregating their waste at source. Which means we have to make them unlearn a lot of this. Also, we insist that residents should be careful to wash their plastics before dumping them. So, there are residents who are resistant to us. But we believe the challenge is in spreading the word to more people," he says.
There are also technical challenges still standing before Plan@Earth. The organisation still hasn’t found a sustainable way to recycle or upcycle silver-laminated wrappers.
"Another article we have not found a way to use is the plastic trays that come in biscuit packets. We are still breaking out heads over it," Sooraj says.