A Texas based eco warrior is teaching Mumbai's slum dwellers to make fashionable items out of the thin plastic bags that you discard after carrying fruits in them
An idea can save the planet' -- this line may seem like any other hackneyed environmental slogan, until you chance upon an idea that compels you to think differently. Cristen Andrews' green initiative is one such example.
The RUR workshop in progress
Hailing from Austin, Texas, this young woman popularises plastic bag crochet as an art form and livelihood skill. Andrews, a content writer by profession, has taught economically disadvantaged people from across India to make everything from drawstring backpacks, shopping bags and purses to top hats, rugs and drink holders, all striking in their designs and colour, out of discarded plastic bags.
"Finding unsoiled plastic bags, which can be used to create products fit for sale, however, is a major challenge," admits Andrews, who calls this her India Project. It all began when, during the India leg of a 2008-2009 world trip, she noticed the tremendous volume of plastic waste in the urban centres. "I also noticed the large volume of ragpickers and slum dwellers living off the small income they can generate by recycling trash.
They generally avoid picking up the thin plastic bags because they are lightweight and therefore have low resale value. And so these bags are a terrible problem in the country -- even in states where plastic bags are officially banned," explains Andrews.
That's when she decided to work with slum dwellers, teach them basic crochet stitches and show them how to create simple bag designs. "They could become skilled artisans capable of transforming waste material into fashionable products," she says.
Today, Andrews and her partner Miguel conduct workshops across the world to make people aware of the hazards inherent in disposing plastic bags carelessly. They have collaborated with a number of NGOs and ecologically conscious individuals. In India, they've conducted workshops at Mumbai, Jodhpur, Vrindavan, New Delhi, Ahmedabad, Fatehpura, Umbergaon and Pune. Clearly, Andrews is passionate about the cause.
"During impromptu workshops in places like Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Iceland, and Australia, I found many who were interested in my idea. I'd always envisioned turning my concept into a self sustaining project -- one that has a direct impact on cleaning up communities and improving the lives of underprivileged women and their families."
One of the people she tied up with during her stay in Mumbai was Monisha Narke, who runs a non-profit organisation called RUR that is actively engaged in spreading environmental awareness. "We organised three workshops -- one for RUR volunteers, one for a city school and another one for women tailors at our organic garments factory. People with elementary knowledge of crocheting learnt faster. But we need more intensive workshops for people to master the skill and pursue it on a long-term basis," feels Narke.
The duo also collaborated with advocate Vinod Shetty and organised a workshop at Dharavi. While applauding Andrews and Miguel's commitment, Shetty said, "Slum women have to struggle for basic necessities. Time spent on learning a craft is like a luxury for them. They cannot afford it everyday. But plastic bag crochet is definitely an option for women who are economically better off."
Andrews, who's presently back in Austin, is unsure of the next stage of the project. But she's hopeful that at least some of the groups she has worked with will give the project a worthy conclusion.