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.
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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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.
“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.
The plastic was handed over to the corporation. Apart from these events, the organization also conducts cleanups at large beaches.
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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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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.
Walk for Plastic has institutionalized the process of recycling and helping the beneficiaries.
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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“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.”
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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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.
“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.
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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