How Empowering Women Through Upcycling Is Helping The Himalayas

M  odiji ne kaha Swacch Bharat karo par ye nahi bataya kaise karein” (Modiji said we should work towards clean India but did not say how). This was the first thing Damati Ji said when I spoke to her last week.

Damati ji is the head of the Mahila Mandal at Wan, a village high in the mountains of Uttarakhand. This village, surrounded by terraced fields and ancient forests, is the last one before the start of the Roopkund trail. I had called her to find out more about a transformation that is sweeping Wan and the neighbouring villages of Mundoli and Kuling in Uttarakhand.

This transformation is like no other we’ve seen in the past. It involves financial independence for women, cleaner villages in the Himalayas and an unusual product for trekkers.

The women of these villages make cushions using plastic waste from their villages. This, in turn, keeps the villages clean and reduces the burden of sending waste down to garbage dumps. The women earn a fixed income for every cushion that they make. Trekkers get to purchase these cushions in Lohajung.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it? I thought so too before I dug deeper to find out more.

Upcycled Pillows
The colourful upcycled pillows. Picture by Trek Leader Karthik Maddineni

What is special about these cushions

The cushions that the women of the three villages make have three parts to them – the stuffing, the inner lining made of muslin, and a thicker cotton cover. The inner lining and cover are similar to what you would find in your regular cushion at home. What sets these cushions apart is the stuffing inside.

upcycled pillow
An upcycled pillow stuffed with cloth and clean plastic waste. Picture by Trek Leader Karthik Maddineni

Unlike regular cushions, these do not have cotton or foam. They are made, instead, with a combination of plastic and cloth. The plastic comes from waste that is discarded by the villagers. These could be empty packets of chips, biscuits, soaps or detergents or chocolate and candy wrappers. The rule is that the plastic used should be clean and dry.

Shredded plastic that goes into the cushion as stuffing

The cloth strips are cut from old clothes that the villagers have no other use for.

The villagers themselves gather the waste and cloth required to make the cushions. They do this either during clean up drives organised by Indiahikes or accumulate the waste generated in their own households.

The Green Trails team at Indiahikes purchases the muslin cloth required for the inner cover, gets it cut into the correct size and shape and hands them over to the villagers. The team also purchases the thicker cotton cloth for the outer cover. A tailor in Lohajung stitches all of this up to have the final product ready.

Why are these women making cushions from waste

There are three reasons that are driving the women of Mundoli, Wan and Kuling to make cushions.

The first is economic. For every cushion that a woman makes, she earns Rs.50. In addition, if she also makes bottle bricks, she earns Rs.10 per brick. This is a lot of money to have in a village. The sense of independence that the women experience with this additional income is tremendous.

In some cases, individuals forgo their personal economic benefit to get something for the community. For example, the women of Kuling asked Indiahikes to buy a large quilt for the community as a whole instead of paying them individually.

Wan-women
Women of village Wan, pose gleefully with their self-made upcycled pillows. Picture by Green Trails Fellow Anagha

The second, more important benefit is that villagers have found a more productive way of utilising their old clothes. They used to earlier burn these in their fields. Using these in the cushions instead helps the environment tremendously as well.

The third, most important reason from a sustainability point of view, is that the women now see a direct exit for the plastic waste littering their villages. Each cushion packs in 250 grams of waste and cloth. That amounts to at least 35-40 assorted pieces of plastic wrappers of chips, biscuits, chocolates etc.

How is this endeavour transforming the Himalayas

Upcycled Pillow
An upcycled pillow ready for usage. Picture by Trek Leader Karthik Maddineni

To put it simply, this endeavour is leaving the Himalayas in a better condition. I’ll explain how.

With consumerism catching up in the mountains, villages here generate a considerable amount of waste. In the past, most of the waste used to be organic. However, with increasing access to manufactured consumer goods, the nature of waste has also changed. A large proportion of the waste generated now is in the form of packaging and wrappers. Unfortunately, most of this is non-recyclable.

For a very long time, there was no exit for non-recyclable waste in the mountains. Villagers either burnt it or dumped it into a stream. Both these methods of waste disposal have extremely toxic consequences.

A few years ago, the Indiahikes Green Trails team, which used to initially clean up the trek trails that they operated on, started clean-up drives in these surrounding villages. It was a slow and painstaking process in the absence of local support. They kept at it relentlessly each season and gradually won the trust of villagers.

cleanup-drive
Green Trails Fellows along with local staff help in garbage collection, segregation and recycling. Picture by Trek Leader Satej Nazare

The team segregated the waste collected from trails and villages and sent the non-recyclable waste down to the garbage dump at Dehradun. This was also not a great solution for multiple reasons. For beginners, sending the non-recyclable waste to Dehradun was expensive. While the recent permission to use the garbage dump at Haldwani has reduced expenses, it didn’t really solve the problem of waste. Most importantly, this process was not sustainable. Villagers took no ownership to manage their waste. They looked at Indiahikes as a service provider who cleaned their villages.

To change this, the Green Trails team tried something different about a year ago. They started conducting workshops in schools to drive home the importance of waste management in children. The enthusiastic young minds quickly became the change agents in their villages.

GTFellow-demo-class
A Green Trail Fellow explaining to kids how to make a bottle brick bookshelf. Picture by Trek Leader Rajkumar

In fact, Anagha, a Green Trails fellow in Lohajung, recalls an instance where a 10-year-old said this to a shopkeeper in Lohajung – “Kya galat hai woh kooda uthane me jise humne hi phelaya hai” (what is wrong if you or I have to pick up the litter that we have only thrown). Shamed by children, these shopkeepers have now appointed someone to pick up their garbage on a regular basis.

At the same time, the team came up with innovative ways of using non-recyclable waste by making bottle bricks. These are discarded plastic and glass bottles filled with waste such as candy and chocolate wrappers. Along with local masons, they built a bench with these bricks to show that waste can actually be put to use. The latest product to be made using bottle bricks is a bookshelf at the village school in Wan.

The reason I am narrating all this is to show how the cushions made of waste are really an extension of this attempt to manage non-recyclable waste in a better way. By making and selling these cushions, villagers are now realising the economic value of waste. At the same time, it is making hitherto reluctant adults more active participants in waste management.

Nothing illustrates this better than what Elisabeth, who moved to Kuling several decades ago from Germany, wrote to Arjun in an email:

“Most of the villagers did not understand what happens with all the plastic between or under stones on their fields. Because of money, they collect it now.”

GTFellows
Our Green Fellows pose after helping the kids make a bookshelf out of bottle-bricks. Picture by Trek Leader Rajkumar

What is the way ahead

The women’s enthusiasm to make cushions and bottle bricks has a flip side. They are beginning to associate this only with money. So the most urgent priority is to shift their focus from economics to upcycling for the sake of the environment. This is the only way to ensure sustainable waste management in the Himalayas.

Past experience with getting villagers to change their habits shows that this is easier said than done. To start with, the Green Trails team has started educating women on various aspects of environmental pollution. The aim is to show them how their actions vis-a-vis waste affect all aspects of their lives. For example, burning waste makes the air that they breath toxic. Burying waste over years is making the food they eat harmful. Women who immediately grasp this link act as influencers in their community.

Along with this, the focus is also on changing the physical habit of littering. Not all those who theoretically believe in making the environment better realize how they are themselves contributing to the problem. This is most obvious when the groups of women that the team addresses throw away wrappers even as they are being spoken to! This is important not only to reduce the overall quantity of waste being generated but also to ensure the habit doesn’t pass on to children.

Finally, the biggest challenge ahead is to make even men active participants in waste management. They have so far been passive observers. Once they are on board, we can truly say that entire villages have transformed.

In the meantime, the Green Trails team will take its upcycling initiatives ahead in other parts of the Himalayas as well.

The cushions, currently available at Lohajung, are priced at Rs.150 a piece. Indiahikes spends Rs.60 per cushion to procure the inner lining, cloth and zipper and to get it stitched. Women earn Rs.50 per pillow they make. The balance proceeds go towards purchasing bottle bricks from villagers.

This initiative at Wan, Kuling and Mundoli is being led by Green Trails fellows, with support from the local Indiahikes staff. 

We would love to hear your thoughts in the comments section below. 


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Sneha Rao

Sneha Rao

Sneha is an erstwhile HR professional from Bangalore, now living in Mumbai. Currently, she is a Content Writer at Indiahikes. She has trekked several trails in Uttarakhand, Karnataka, Kerala and Meghalaya. She holds the Green Trails idea close to her heart and enjoys researching and writing about the environment. To get in touch with her, write to sneha@indiahikes.com.

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