How these siblings are creating a wasteless world one changed mind at a time

Much of the problem of waste lies in our attitudes and behaviour towards it. The economic reforms and liberalisation of the 90s kickstarted India’s transformation into a consumerist society. Our consumption patterns changed, but our education system and waste management infrastructure did not, and when new forms of waste are thrust upon primitive systems, comes the burgeoning problem of garbage, the likes of which we’re facing today.

Participating in tsunami relief work in rural coastal Tamil Nadu in 2004,

what Chandrah Nusselein saw was that neglect of proper waste management education and infrastructure compounded the health problems among affected communities. She was convinced that the solution to the problem of garbage lay in large scale behaviour change through education and citizen empowerment.

Back in her hometown of Auroville, she began studying its waste management systems, and set about changing the way the community produced and managed its waste. In 2009, with her brother Ribhu Vohra, she organised the Litter Free Auroville campaign. 2000 residents joined a massive clean-up and students of 17 local schools received waste education material.

The response to the campaign was overwhelming. “All the schools returned, asking for such material to be included in their regular curriculum”, says Vohra. It was seen that after 6 months of using the material, students were not just adopting the newly learned behaviour themselves but were also attempting to change the consumption and waste disposal behaviour of their families.

Ribhu Vohra and Chandrah Nusselein

Giving serious thought to the creation of educational material that schools could seamlessly integrate into their curriculum, Vohra and Nusselein formed WasteLess India in 2010. The Auroville-based non-profit social enterprise educates school children about waste and empowers them to make long-term changes in their consumption habits, and in their attitudes and behaviour regarding waste creation and disposal.

In 2011, WasteLess’s premier offering ‘Garbology 101’ — 101 innovative games and activities for waste education — was born. ‘We target children aged 8–15 because that’s when they are most interested and curious. They also stand to inherit the mess we are making today and they need to have the tools to clean it up”, says Vohra. Children are also effective agents of behavioural change at the level of the household. The Garbology toolkit combines physical tasks, card and board games, and colouring activities for different levels that teachers can use either to complement or substitute regular lessons for environmental education and social studies or as a stand-alone subject.

The Garbology toolkit

The activities are designed to address waste from diverse perspectives under an impressive range of themes for children to comprehend the inter-relatedness of waste with things around them. Children go on 101 journies through the complex world of waste, examining how and where it is produced, its impact on natural resources, the systems that handle and dispose it, and their role as consumers in reducing waste.

They upcycle used Tetrapaks into wallets while studying resource conservation and compare soft drink packaging to understand their impacts. They compare linear and cyclical economies, analyse advertisements and evaluate their consumption habits accordingly. “Garbology does not enforce a particular behaviour but, by analysing a problem in different ways, empowers children with the knowledge to evaluate their choices and make the right choices while understanding their impact. This also gives them the power to explain their choices and influence others’ behaviour”, says Vohra.

To be compatible with the formal, tightly structured Indian school system, the initially flexible design of Garbology was adapted so as to be easy for teachers to use and to allow for periodic learning assessments. The WasteLess team trains school teachers to understand and link different topics and use Garbology effectively.

“Integrating waste education into the school curriculum reinforces positive behaviour regularly and demonstrates that waste is an issue that needs to be addressed seriously”, emphasises Nusselein.

Garbology currently reaches 32,000 students in 37 private and aided schools in Andhra Pradesh, Delhi, Dehradun, Karnataka, and Uttarakhand. It is also used by WasteLess’ NGO partners in educational programmes in their network of schools. The impacts of Garbology are being seen in schools which, with the help of WasteLess, have begun waste segregation, composting, or set up recycling units on their campuses, donating the proceeds from selling recyclable waste to developmental activities. “In one Chennai-based school, the children trained their parents in waste segregation”, she informs.

Children are introduced to garbage segregation at Arsha Vidya Mandir, Chennai

For government schools where Garbology did not do well, WasteLess developed an innovative game called Pick-it-Up to teach children the economic value of recycling waste. With a handbook of activity-based lessons and accompanying card games, students learn the hierarchy of value of different categories of waste based on their recyclability. For example, metal and glass waste has the highest value followed by plastic and paper. Says Vohra, “We found that about 35% of India’s municipal solid waste is bought by scrap dealers. But, because people are largely unaware about the price of different items and thus, worried about being swindled, most recyclable waste does not reach these dealers.” WasteLess’ first task while developing Pick-it-Up was to map the items bought and the rates offered by scrap dealers across 15 different locations across India. “The aim of the game”, he explains, “is to reinforce to children and by extension, their parents, that there is economic value in segregating and recycling waste. We hope that once this benefit is realised, the positive behaviour is automatically reinforced.”

Pick-it-Up, currently in pilot phase, is being crowdfunding on Indiegogo to reach government school children through NGO and corporate partnerships. “Once we successfully reach 5000 kids, we can integrate the best practices into government school education”, says Nusselein optimistically.

Children display their upcycled glove puppets

The largely grant-funded enterprise now uses crowdfunding campaigns and service fees to scale its products and make them available free-of-cost to students across the country.

In the offing is a new game called kNOw Your Plastics, developed after extensive consultation with global experts. It teaches children to differentiate between plastics and use them correctly by reading their Resin Identification Codes. “We are sure it will work”, says Vohra. They’re confidence is warranted. Following a recent pilot, a teacher reported that children had begun to look under different products to find their resin codes. Adds Nusselein, “On realised that many of their lunch boxes were made of PVC, they switched to polypropylene or stainless steel!” The game will reach 1000 NGOs later this year before a similar app is launched in 2017 which allows users to scan the resin codes of all plastic household items and discover safe alternatives.

With GoI funding, 10 Garbology activities will also be available for free use on WasteLess’ website later this year.

Sustained, long term change is only possible through systems change. WasteLess, by working with children, aims to create citizens of tomorrow who value strong systems and vote into power governments that will help provide them. “There is value in citizen action. It brings change”, Vohra tells me.

Interested in volunteering at or partnering with WasteLess India? Write to wasteless@auroville.org.in