February 2016

Upcycling to Empower

“I came to Amritapuri to learn how to make things to sell,” says Archana from Uttarakhand. “We learned how to make mats from old saris and bags from used plastic. We are going to teach all of our friends how to do this.”

Archana was one among twenty women who came to Amritapuri for a two week course in tailoring and crochet via upcycling. The students from Amrita SeRVe villages were taught how to take old and discarded materials and make them into new things—things that can often be sold for a higher price.

The course is based on a movement around the world that’s growing—it’s called “Waste to Wealth”. It started in the United States in the 1970s and has slowly but surely been making its way around the world.

Technically, the definition of upcycling is the process of transforming by-products, waste materials, or unwanted products into new materials or products of better quality or better environmental value. Clearly, the possibilities of such an idea are endless.

Upcycling is opposite end of the spectrum from recycling. Recycling takes consumer materials—mostly plastic, paper, metal and glass—and breaks them down so their base materials can be remade into a new consumer product, often of lesser quality.

When you upcycle an item, you aren’t breaking down the materials. You may be refashioning it—like cutting a t-shirt into strips of yarn—but it’s still made of the same materials as when you started. Also, the upcycled item is typically better or the same quality as the original.

This is something that can be of great help to India at this time. Why?

Most of our waste comes from cities. People there have money, but they do not have land to grow things. Nor do they have much time to make things. They buy mostly packaged things and simply throw the waste into the trash.

How to bring together these two different states of existence? In the cities, people consume and throw away too much. In the villages, people produce, yet have not enough to live.

In some cases, urban life has reached such vast speeds, that sometimes people throw away things before they are even over. The new model of an item hits the market, and so the old one is simply thrown aside.

On the other side of the story is life in the villages. People there have land and time, but no money. Agriculture itself depends entirely on climate, so sometimes crops fail and that means no income for that season.

The problem is getting even worse with the effects of global warming and the sporadic changes in weather. Meanwhile, agricultural sales are controlled by end distributors and middle men. The farmers have no say in the initial price. They can’t control the weather and they can’t control the markets. Their lives have become very dark.

How to bring together these two different states of existence? In the cities, people consume and throw away too much. In the villages, people produce, yet have not enough to live.

Amrita SeRVe is beginning a way to address these issues through upcycling and waste management. First thing is we are teaching villagers how to take plastic and used cloth and make products to sell in cities.

The women in the recent tailoring and crochet course did just that. Taking old saris, discarded bedsheets, torn pants, and used plastic bags, they were taught how to make handbags, braided rugs, water bottle holders and small purses.

The items truly do turn out beautifully and with this practice, there is no need to buy costly materials and items to make them. There is a viable stream of income in addition to agriculture.

Another part of the project is that we are starting a Waste Management Certificate Course. Villagers will come here to study for one month, and then return home to contact housing authorities and residential associations. They will work with them to begin the practice of reduce, reuse, and recycle waste.

When seen from the broader perspective, it’s an interesting collaboration. Instead of a nuisance to the earth, city life can become a way to help village people lead better lives.

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