How Chennai’s Walk for Plastic is recycling waste to fund education of underprivileged children

How Chennai’s Walk for Plastic is recycling waste to fund education of underprivileged children

How Chennai’s Walk for Plastic is recycling waste to fund education of underprivileged children save environment 30stades

For 28-year-old Gowtham B, art and social responsibility go hand-in-hand, so much that most of his art pieces have been created with waste items he picked up in and around his area. “I felt good while walking and picking up plastic. I wanted to turn that into an activity where everyone could do the same to promote recycling,” he says.

That led to the inception of ‘Walk for Plastic’ in Chennai – an initiative to eradicate littering and encourage 100 percent recycling of waste. Members of Walk for Plastic collect plastic wastes from all possible places including beaches, markets, parks, residential colonies, and recycle them.

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“The money collected through recycling is used towards the education of children of sanitary workers and ragpickers. The money is rightfully theirs,” says Gowtham.

He also uses plastic waste to create artworks, which have made his art as well as Walk for Plastic popular in India and beyond. “We have support from volunteers all over India including the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and in Malaysia, Cape Town in South Africa, the US and Philippines. The followers I gained through my artworks also helped spread the word about the mission to a great extent,” Gowtham says.

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Over 400 volunteers are now associated with Walk for Plastic. Pic: Through Walk for Plastic 30stades
Over 400 volunteers are now associated with Walk for Plastic. Pic: Through Walk for Plastic

Going strong for over two years, Walk for Plastic has recycled over 18 tons of waste so far.

From walking alone to a mass movement

Gowtham, a mechanical engineer-turned-artist, recollects that it was June 1, 2019, when he took a bag and went out to collect plastic. “For the first 10 days, nobody batted an eye. Slowly, word spread and many joined me. Currently, there are more than 400 active participants.”

G Jagannathan (Jagan), who’s been supporting the initiative from day 25, and is currently the head of volunteers in the organization, says it started with a word of mouth and posters on social media quickly gained momentum. Soon, volunteers started joining in. “To ensure consistent participation, we note down their details, and there’s constant communication to ensure they continue with the activities,” he states.

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Gowtham, who has delegated work to 30 of his team members, keeps motivating everyone to keep the mission going. In November 2019, ‘Payanam 25’ (Payanam is ‘journey’ in Tamil) was the first mega event in this movement, Jagan says.

Gowtham B (left) began Walk for Plastic on June 1, 2019. G Jagannathan (right) joined the initiative on day 25. Pic: through Walk for Plastic 30stades
Gowtham B (left) began Walk for Plastic on June 1, 2019. G Jagannathan (right) joined the initiative on day 25. Pic: through Walk for Plastic

“More than 100 volunteers walked for 25 km from Villivakkam to Besant Nagar, collecting nearly 100 kg of plastic and donating it to the Chennai Corporation which would use it for the welfare of sanitary workers,” he says.

In February 2020, at ‘Payanam 75’, more than 300 volunteers walked from five different locations for 15 km, collecting 660kg plastic, and met at Kathipara flyover.

The plastic was handed over to the corporation. Apart from these events, the organization also conducts cleanups at large beaches.

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Recently, at the Kovalam beach, over 90 volunteers cleared more than 240 kg of solid waste.

They have also removed wastes from Mahabalipuram beach, Akkarai beach and Pondicherry Marina Beach.

“It is impossible to eradicate plastic, but we’re trying to say do not use OTP (one-time plastic) and segregate waste before throwing it into the bin,” says Jagan, emphasising the need to recycle common items like PET bottles, milk packets and glass bottles as much as possible.

When the pandemic struck, like other initiatives, Walk for Plastic too took a beating. So Gowtham revamped the idea and brought in a ‘Covid-19 Edition’ where people could collect plastic at their homes, recycle them and send in the money.

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Gowtham B created a whale using 40,000 bottlecaps. Pic: Walk for Plastic 30stades
Gowtham B created a whale using 40,000 bottlecaps. Pic: Walk for Plastic

The organisation also started ‘Project Bin-Go’ in September 2021. They placed bins at 22 locations, targeting small shops to collect recyclable plastic every day. The project was a huge success and they collected over 100 kg of plastic in just 20 days.

Institutionalizing Walks

Walk for Plastic has institutionalized the process of recycling and helping the beneficiaries.

Volunteers collect the money and deposit plastic in the waste paper mart. The money is then transferred to the trust’s bank account.

Fundraisers were also set up where people could either send in money or buy safety equipment like gloves and masks for volunteers involved in the activities.

After verifying over 40 candidates who were eligible for the funding via a detailed background check process, Gowtham and his team selected two students for funding.

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One of the students chosen is Deepika, whose mother works as a sweeper at Kilpauk Medical College.

“The contribution was from more than 8,000 people. It was a very emotional moment,” he shares.

Both Gowtham and Jagan reiterate that verifying the details of each candidate was the toughest job to do. Jagan says, “Many students drop out of school after class 10, either because of the disinterest shown by parents or the children. We wanted to choose someone who was genuinely interested in studying.”

Walk for Plastic volunteers in the Andamans. Pic: Facebook/Walkforplastic 30stades
Walk for Plastic volunteers in the Andamans. Pic: Facebook/Walkforplastic

For the second student, the organisation spent a portion of the funds in buying the girl a cycle. “This was because her education needs were already met. The girl’s mother is a single parent and works as a sweeper, employed by the Chennai Corporation,” Jagan adds.

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In the upcoming academic year, it plans to educate at least ten students through the money raised from recycling plastic.

The team has also brought about several innovative campaigns including plantation drives and exhibits showcasing alternatives to plastic. During Navratri in 2021, volunteers put up a ‘Plastic Golu’ (an exhibit traditionally used for various Gods) in an attempt to deliver the message about the variety of substitutes that people can opt for.

The team has also conducted several awareness programmes under ‘Enlighten’ at more than 60 schools and colleges as well as many major companies.

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Breathing life into plastic

Gowtham says he has always supported social causes since day one of his journey. Being an artist, he found his own way to narrate a story through art – be it for voicing his protest against the imposition of 12 percent GST on sanitary napkins, creating awareness over food wastage or the need to stop using plastic straws.

Tamiz Mozhi, student of class 8, is daughter of Sangeetha, a single parent who works in Chennai Corporation. She needed a bicycle, which was provided through funds generated from recycling. Pic: Walk for Plastic 30stades
Tamizh Mozhi, student of class 8, is the daughter of Sangeetha, a single parent who is a cleaner in the Chennai Corporation. She needed a bicycle, which was provided through funds generated from recycling. Pic: Walk for Plastic

In 2019, Gowtham created a life-size killer whale with over 40,000 bottle caps with an aim to educate people about the perils that bottlecaps pose to marine life.

“It was 25 feet long and I placed it in all the beaches. But nobody cared about it and it didn’t create an impact at all. As an artist, it hurts when your work doesn’t get the respect it deserves.” 

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But what put him on the front page of several newspapers was the Coronavirus-shaped helmet he created in 2020. Following its popularity, his team ‘Art Kingdom’ created a COVID-19 vaccine auto, joining hands with the Greater Chennai Corporation to urge Chennaiites to take the lifesaving jabs.

Walk for Plastic has recycled over 18 tons of waste so far.  Pic: Walk for Plastic 30stades
Walk for Plastic has recycled over 18 tons of waste so far. Pic: Walk for Plastic

Recently, he created a mammoth 30-feet-high Christmas tree in collaboration with the House of Hiranandani using more than 4,000 plastic bottles. It earned them a mention in the Guinness Book of World Records.

“When Walk for Plastic initiative started gaining support, my art took a backseat. I am making sure that I concentrate on that as well because if not for the Art Kingdom, there would be no Walk for Plastic,” he says.

(Narayani M is a Chennai-based writer specialising in longform writing and human interest stories.)

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