With the Sagar-Mitra Abhiyaan, Children Grapple With the Plastic Problem

Under the programme, schoolchildren in Pune have been collecting plastic items from their homes for safe disposal, assisted by their teachers and community workers.

School students with plastic items they've helped collect under the Sagar-Mitra Abhiyaan programme. Credit: Scharada Dubey

School students with plastic items they’ve helped collect under the Sagar-Mitra Abhiyaan programme. Credit: Scharada Dubey

Pune: Children from over a hundred schools in Pune, numbering over 111,000 in 2016, have developed a daily routine as natural for them as doing their homework or packing their school bags. Every day, they collect small items of clean, dry, empty plastic from their homes, such as packets, bottles, bottle tops, ball pen casings, old combs – anything broken made of plastic, and put these into a big plastic bag kept specially for the purpose. Every month, on a designated day, they hand over the bag full of plastic items to teachers and volunteers at school. Each child, collecting only plastic waste, and only from the confines of his or her home, is a declared ‘Sagar-Mitra’, Hindi for ‘Friend of the Ocean’.

“It began out of what we observed during a cleaning drive that had been organised by some groups with schoolchildren,” says Vinod Bodhankar of The Academic Advisors (TAA), the NGO that founded the programme. He, along with co-founders Susan Raj and Lalit Rathi, had accompanied the children on the cleanliness drive when they were confronted with the mountain of waste containing hazardous material along a portion of the riverbank. “We saw immediately that children could not be asked to pick up plastic from sites where they could be exposed to used syringe needles, pieces of glass and other such sharp objects. We asked them to go home. It was then we decided that children should have a safe and effective way of collecting the plastic from their homes and contribute it for recycling or safe disposal.”

Thus began TAA’s Sagar-Mitra Abhiyaan initiative in 2011. “We began in 2011 with 150 children from one school. Today we have a lakh and eleven thousand students from classes 5 to 9 from schools spread across Pune city, and we are adding more every day as we cover more schools by presenting them with the Sagar-Mitra programme. The target is to cover all 780 schools in the city, or twelve lakh students. This will bring about a definite change in the culture of the city,” says Bodhankar, whose daily routine consists of visiting schools with his laptop, meeting principals and teachers, and presenting the Sagar-Mitra concept to hundreds of children.

The presentation is like an initiation ritual for children, who assemble to watch a slideshow explained in the clearest and simplest terms by Bodhankar or his assistant. The children gasp when they see images of marine life and birds choked to death on plastic or the heaps of refuse containing tons of plastic that is contaminating rivers, lakes and other water bodies closer to their homes. “If you had a beautiful fish tank in your home, would you throw bits of plastic and rubbish into it?” the children are asked. “No!” they reply in total unison. “These creatures are dying and choking, through no fault of their own. Shouldn’t we try and protect them?” they are asked. “Yes!” they reply, again in complete accord.

In less than an hour, Bodhankar has managed to communicate to the children that:

  • The plastic that we throw on the ground around us is as good as directly thrown into the ocean because land slopes naturally towards the oceans
  • Once it is in the oceans, it gets broken down into smaller particles by waves and the effect of the sun, and these particles spread in the water and algae
  • When fish begin to die from ingesting plastic, the birds that feed on them also begin to die
  • So, wittingly or unwittingly, our indiscriminate use of plastic and its careless disposal on land is leading to the death of our oceans – where all life began on Earth

For most children, it is the first time that such a direct connection has been shown between our lifestyle practices and the destruction they cause to millions of blameless creatures. They are made aware of the floating islands of plastic trash that are now found in all the oceans of the world, with the largest being the one in the northern Pacific. They see rivers choked with plastic and learn how 25% of fish from both rivers and ocean have plastic found in them. According to the latest reports, for every three tonnes of fish caught in the ocean, we will be harvesting a ton of plastic that they contain by 2030. The presentation succeeds in bringing the focus on plastic as a major environmental threat.

Simplicity of the process

So how do children begin to engage with the problem they see on a global scale during this presentation? Says Bodhankar:

After we began in 2011, we had the opportunity to see what were the inhibiting factors for both parents and children and how these could be overcome. It was out of this that we decided to make the easiest, most minimal entry point for children. They become involved as soon as their school has come on board the Sagar-Mitra Abhiyaan. Students from classes 5 to 9 are then given a plastic bag in which they will collect clean, dry, empty plastic from their homes. We suggest that they collect at least one item daily, or 30 items in a month. For students who say they could not find any plastic, we have no penalty. All we ask is that at the end of the month, on the designated day, they should bring at least the empty Sagar-Mitra plastic bag to deposit at the school. This simple instruction works. Students have so far contributed 50 tonnes of plastic they have collected from their homes. It is a remarkable figure if you consider that from 150 tonnes of mixed garbage, you extract one tonne of plastic. The impact of what the children have achieved in the past three years is also tremendous when compared with the fact that it takes a mere five kilograms of plastic to contaminate a square kilometre of ocean or farmland.

After the plastic has been brought by the children to their school on the monthly designated day for collection, it is collected by a few teachers and student volunteers. A Sagar-Mitra vehicle with a driver and cleaner arrives at the school to pick up the collected plastic. It is weighed and packed into the vehicle after the price of Rs 8 per kg has been handed over to the school. Then the plastic is delivered to the warehouses of the Clean Garbage Manufacturing Pvt. Ltd. (CGMPL), the company that is paying for the plastic and is engaged in recycling and safe disposal.

The plastic is actually sorted into 60 different types of items. Some have ready takers. For instance, bottles are directly taken by small manufacturers to reuse them for their own products. Bright blue plastic bottles of a certain brand of coconut oil have been converted into bright blue buckets and planters. However, around 30-40% of plastic items cannot be disposed of through the conventional demand funnels. These are sent for pyrolysis – the chemical decomposition of plastic using heat in the absence of oxygen, which results in its conversion to some forms of fuel.

Lalit Rathi leads the CGMPL initiative to have the collected plastic recycled and converted through pyrolysis. The volumes that have been collected have made him press for R&D on the recycling of plastics. One of the collaborators Sagar-Mitra has found is Nilesh Inamdar, a scientist engaged in cutting-edge research into pyrolysis. Inamdar who has developed a machine that converts clean and dry plastic into furnace oil and coal powder.

Changing habits

The Sagar-Mitra strategy of having children lead plastic collection within the home seems to be having the desired effect on their families. Philomena Gaekwad is Principal of the Paranjpe School at Kothrud, Pune, the first school to join the Sagar-Mitra initiative. She says,

Initially, it took both children and parents some time to get used to the practice of collecting plastic. But since then, children are completely involved and very regular in collecting plastic both from their homes and anywhere on the school campus. Teachers and their families have also got used to this practice. Ex-students now bring their plastic to our school for collection. We have the collection calendar for the whole year decided and displayed, and a week before the collection date, we make regular announcements in class. The children also take pride in donating the amount collected through the sale of the plastic to the Hemalkasa Lok Biradari [an NGO]. This year, in the pre-Diwali cleaning up that went on in the students’ homes, we managed to collect 150 kg of plastic in a week.

It is not only homes in Pune that are coming under the Sagar-Mitra influence. New Yorker Lynn Rosen has brought schools from two boroughs of Brooklyn on board the programme. She says, “I took it to one school and started with two classes. Parents approved of this project because the plastics came from home and the students did not have to look in the street. We started in November and ended in late May. I saw students become more responsible, proud to bring in the plastics and becoming aware of how they were contributing to a better planet. It taught me that when we treat them like adults and make them important members of our society, we get the best results.” The Sagar-Mitra initiative has takers in schools in Morocco as well.

Nearer home, 21 schools in Jalgaon, 10 in Wai (both in Maharashtra) and five in Rajasthan have begun collections and more come forward every day. “The volunteers who anchor the process make a difference,” says Bodhankar as he speaks of Vishal Sonpur, a differently abled anchor whose passionate pursuit of the cause has added to the programme’s success in Jalgaon. “We need people who will communicate clearly, reach out to children and the community, and not dilute the message. It is simple – while we do not tell children that you are going to change the world or your city is going to become clean by your bringing plastic, we do give the example of ants who are capable of emptying whole godowns of grain. Do the ant’s share and you will see the change yourself, is what we tell them.”

Sagar-Mitra has also been more fortunate because its efforts have been noticed and the TAA has been called to meet Prakash Javadekar, the environment minister, as well as the Directorate of Secondary Education in Maharashtra. This led to 1,200 school principals and teachers being assembled and trained in Pune in January this year. Sagar-Mitra also began reaching out to housing societies from 2015.

“Every child influences at least three people in such practices at home and elsewhere,” says Bodhankar. “We are sure that 12 lakh children in [the urban agglomeration centred on Pune] by 2020 will be able to make a significant difference to the way people use, dispose and recycle plastic. For us, that’s the motivating factor – win a city, win a world.”