In Western India, a nonprofit hires locals to spin yarn from plastic waste.
Sumitra, a mother of four, hails from the Warli tribe in Western India, where she lives with her family. Until 2016, Sumitra’s family’s income was limited to what they could earn from farming, making them vulnerable to inconsistent rainfall. So family members took day jobs.
Then, six years ago, ReCharkha came to Sumitra’s village and gave her a new job.
ReCharkha is a social enterprise that converts plastic into yarn that is then woven into place mats, laptop bags, and other products. Sumitra, an expert weaver, became one of its lead weavers after just four months. Now, she is a regular contributor to her family’s income. More than that, she says, “the work that I do helps me to keep my four children at school. I couldn’t be more proud.”
ReCharkha was created by Amita Deshpande, a software engineer who left a high-paying job in the United State to return to India. She says she was so alarmed at the amount of garbage in both the U.S. and India that she decided to return to India and work on a business that would address waste, as well as create employment in rural and tribal areas around her hometown. Her job in the U.S. had exposed her to her company’s efforts to be environmentally and socially responsible, and she wanted to bring those values to her home country — both to address the issue of plastic pollution and to provide dignified employment to rural people. Her company name, ReCharkha, has significance, Amita Deshpande explains. “Re” means “again” or “afresh” in English, while “Charkha” has its origins in Sanskrit and refers to a spinning wheel. She notes that Mahatma Gandhi, the iconic Indian freedom fighter, popularized the “charkha,” which symbolizes going back to the roots of revolution. In Deshpande’s case, the wheel turns plastic trash into yarn used to create useful and saleable items.
Ideally, she notes, people will learn to use less plastic to begin with. “We need to educate people about minimizing the use of non-biodegradable items,” she says. “Plastic is versatile, and until we find an alternate that is just as useful but also eco-friendly, we have to focus on spreading a message to minimize its usage … and prevent it from going into our rivers, oceans and landfills.”
But educating people in a country with a population as large as India’s, Amita says, is no easy task. She uses proceeds from the sale of ReCharkha products to “raise funds to undertake awareness generation campaigns in schools, villages, housing societies, and for general citizens through workshops.”
Every month, ReCharkha reuses around 50,000 pieces of plastic waste, roughly eighty percent of which she receives as donations from supporters and customers. (The remaining twenty percent comes from industrial/pre-consumer waste.) ReCharkha has three principal goals, Amita explains. “The first is conserving the environment. The second is to preserve India’s age-old tradition of weaving, and the third is to enable rural livelihoods.”
“I grew up in a town close to tribal villages,” she says. “Handloom weaving has been under threat right from the industrial revolution. Livelihoods based on handicrafts are more sustainable as they require neither electricity nor big industrial equipment, plus they enable more employment as the work is more manual than mechanized.”
Jitesh, a deaf and mute artisan who works at ReCharkha, is the company’s most efficient weaver. “His concentration levels are unmatched, and he can carry on his work for hours on end,” Amita says. Weaving has given a new purpose to his life, and Jitesh has told Amita that since starting work at ReCharkha, he no longer feels like a burden to his family. He is proud, she says, to be a giver and not a taker.
Many tribal women like Sumitra feel proud to be a breadwinner for their families, sometimes the primary one. Finding employment in their own backyards is a bonus, allowing them to stay connected with their roots and eliminating the need to go to bigger cities to look for seasonal employment. The fact that their work is helping the environment is an additional benefit.
Before starting her venture, Amita took lessons, learning to spin the charkha to create yarn. Spinning yarn on a wheel is an ancient technique, she says, simple but effective. Employees wash and dry the plastic waste used to make ReCharkha’s yarn, then organize it by color before it is spun on the charkha. In the past year, ReCharkha has up-cycled more than three million plastic bags, Amita says.
Amita has big dreams. Her ultimate aim, she says, is to create “a sustainable village of buildings using natural and local materials, sustainable sanitation, wastewater management, renewable energy, planting of native species of trees, and most importantly, ecosocial livelihoods.” ReCharkha, for her, is step one.