Recycling Partnerships with Mumbai Schools


P1010005Mumbai We were up and out early into the Monday morning traffic where Vinod had been invited to speak about about the environmental impact of recycling by our waste pickers in Dharavi to a class at the B. M. Ruia Girls’ College, a junior college of sorts with 1500 students served in two shifts by 50 teachers in downtown Mumbai. This was the old Bombay of trees and giant houses that were now eight-plexes or more. The college was in the next street over from the stately and historic house that was home and workspace for Mahatma Gandhi.

Fifty young women or more were crowded into the six floor classroom. A year before I had accompanied Vinod Shetty, ACORN India’s director, when we were making one of our first presentations at the American School. Since then Vinod had signed up 23 schools of various shapes and sizes to partner with our recyclers. The design was straightforward. If they would collect the dry and wet waste at the school, then we would arrange to pick it up, sort through it for the cardboard, paper, plastic, and anything else of value, and our recyclers would sell, hopefully at a better price to increase their livelihoods.

The easy part perhaps was the agreement by the schools to be ACORN’s partner. The hard part I could tell the more I listened to Vinod’s presentation and talked to him, was getting the schools to actually take it seriously and make it happen. What had been a feel good win-win, environmental rap a year ago, now was refined with surefire, but pointed, jokes about taking it seriously, the need to have a real committee of the students on solid waste management, and the pleas before and after the meeting for a teacher who would shepherd the program inside the institution on a day-by-day basis. When those pieces were in place, then the program worked. When they were not, too often our recyclers showed up to collect and the waste was gone or had not been collected, frustrating the program and ironically depressing our recyclers earnings. The model was right but Vinod had clearly found that the flesh was often weaker than the spirit.

He was plowing forward though. He set up the documentary on our ragpickers, Waste, in the first 20 minutes with me, then ran the movie to dramatic impact, and then upped the ante, and pressed the “ask.” They were there, but Vinod clearly had learned the hard, organizers law, based on too much experience, that it’s what happens after the meeting that matters. When we met the principal in her office, we went again to the point to get more and more buy in. It all sounded good when we left. Maybe it would work. A college would be important.

More significantly, Vinod was committed to continuing to press forward with some confidence that each time we had the opportunity to speak to another school, another assembly, another college, and got them to actually follow through with us, we would be closer to our goal.

Good ideas take so much sweat. This one still might work.