New Delhi, India – At a time when the world is grappling with staggering amounts of plastic waste and its environmental ramifications, a woman in India’s northeastern state of Assam has hit upon a novel idea to address the problem while also helping poor women earn a livelihood from it.
Rupjyoti Saikia Gogoi, 47, lives in the vicinity of Kaziranga National Park, a major tourist attraction in Assam and home to the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceros, besides thousands of elephants, tigers, panthers, bears and exotic bird species.
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In 1985, the national park was inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage List.
Gogi and women from her collective, called Village Weaves, gather the waste – plastic bottles, packets of chips and water bottles – left behind by the tourists, wash and dry it manually and create handloom products from it.
Launched in 2004, the enterprise has helped empower more than 2,300 women across 35 villages in Assam so far while also whittling down plastic pollution around the national park.
“Kaziranga is visited by millions of tourists each year, many of who leave behind heaps of garbage,” says Gogoi.
“Despite a ban on littering, there are plastic bags everywhere which are not only an eyesore but also hazardous for animals who choke on them.”
Gogoi’s husband Binod works for a local wildlife conservation non-profit and shares her concern about the threat of plastic waste to the environment and animals.
The couple say they discussed the problem and “came up with a solution that was three-pronged – to tackle the waste, recycle it in an eco-friendly manner and empower local women”.
Gogoi says she experimented for months before she stumbled upon a workable plan to use the waste creatively.
“At first, I tried using just plastic to make different objects from it. But it didn’t work. I then experimented with other types of materials. Finally, it was only after I mixed plastic with cotton threads that I was able to create a durable and pliant fabric that was ideal for creating craft products,” she says.
Gogoi says she followed simple handloom techniques she had learnt from her mother.
“Handloom weaving is a very common skill among Assamese women, especially in villages. We are trained in this craft from the age of six-seven and most households have a loom made by the ladies from the bamboo that grows locally and abundantly,” she explains.
Once the technique was perfected, the self-taught artisan started sharing her knowledge with other women in Bocha Gaon village in the Golaghat district.
Word spread and soon hundreds of women joined her network, making it a vibrant, statewide operation within a year.
Today, hundreds of women craft handbags, doormats, table mats, wall hangings, coasters, table covers, tea cosies, runners and other items from plastic waste.
Their products are sold through Kaziranga Haat, a gift shop Gogoi launched in her village in 2012. In high tourist season, the women can make about $150-200 a month by selling their products through the outlet.
Over the last two decades, thousands of women have benefitted from Gogoi’s enterprise. And it’s not just the women.
“Often entire families join in collecting waste, weaving handloom products and other associated tasks which helps them earn good money. For instance, in my home, my husband, in-laws, brother and mum all help me with not just weaving, but also marketing the products and other administrative work. They take care of my home when I travel for workshops,” she says.
Gogoi is now invited by state governments and private organisations to hold workshops to teach rural women how to transform trash into treasure.
“I have travelled across many Indian states like Arunachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, West Bengal and Delhi upon invitation. It’s a great feeling to be a teacher,” she says.
But there are challenges, too.
The pandemic has put all travel on hold while whittling down tourist footfalls to Kaziranga, drastically affecting the collective’s sales.
Gogoi says she currently relies on earnings from her tiny café – Roop’s Kitchen – which she runs as a side hustle “to tide over rough times”.
The vegetarian, nine-seater outlet serves an Assamese thali with four local delicacies and breads priced at $3.
There are other problems as well which small artisans such as Gogoi face.
“We are struggling with outdated looms and need better technology and modern looms to improve the quality of our products and have higher productivity. Foreign tourists really appreciate our products, so there is potential for higher sales and profits,” she says.
“Though I have written to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, we have not heard back from his office. There are many central and state government schemes as well for artisans like us, but they never reach us in our nondescript villages.”
The entrepreneur hopes that once the pandemic subsides, the collective’s women will be able to reclaim their lives and livelihoods.
Among the many women who have benefitted from Gogoi’s venture is 35-year-old Debyani Sarkar, who began learning the technique of plastic weaving in 2015.
“I do the recycling and weaving in my free time as I have three young children. It has helped me earn up to $150 a month,” she told Al Jazeera.
“With my income, I am able to buy good food and school books for my kids. I hope to do the same once coronavirus goes away.”
(June 5 is celebrated annually as the World Environment Day)