Small steps for a big cause

Devika Chhabra, 16, has launched a campaign where waste plastic bottles will be recycled into winter clothes for street dwellers. Patriot talks to the young enthusiast about her project, her inspiration behind it and more

Teenager Devika Chhabra has set out single-handedly to tackle some of the country’s most pertinent issues in her own small way. Only a couple of weeks ago, she launched the Replasteco campaign. A personal project, wherein she collects waste plastic bottles and recycles them to manufacture winter wear for street dwellers. Patriot was able to bag an interaction with Devika despite her packed schedule, to understand how at such a young age, she came to start an initiative of this nature.

She ended up taking a trip down memory lane, recounting the exact moment when she was struck with inspiration for the Replasteco project. It was on her way back home from school one day, when she happened to spot a pile of garbage on the road. But, just like any other day, she chose to ignore the sight. Soon after, on the same car ride, she spotted a cow eating waste vegetables out of a polythene bag. The irony of the situation hit her, as she decided to put that aside too, focusing instead on the errands she had lined up for the day.

In the evening of the same day, Devika came across a group of young boys – with torn clothes, playing goli-danda in the mud, underneath the flyover.

Even this incident, she found, rolled off her shoulders quickly. In hindsight, she imagines it is the conditioning that we Indian children grow up with, about not messing with the status quo, that kept her from thinking too deeply about these sights. “Strangely, now that I take a look back, I came across several similar instances the next few days, but I would continue to consciously ignore it- an unfortunate trait we humans possess,” she muses.

Days later, when she lay awake listlessly at 3 am, she found herself going through articles about the Northern Lights (a subject she is fascinated by), when she came across an article titled ‘Intriguing Facts About Plastic Pollution.’ The night she read that article, she began to ask her self the difficult questions. “After I read that article, I was enraged, rather shaken by the number of plastics in the ocean. I asked myself a simple question – what can be done to help resolve this? One half of me thought, that I’m only 16-year-old, what could I possibly do? Whereas the other half piped in saying – ‘well, you’re 16 years old and that makes you a responsible youth of this country. If you won’t, who will?’

And that, was how Replasteco, came to be. A project where post-consumer plastic bottles are collected, in an effort to recycle them to make fabric.

Devika intends to use the fabric to mass produce warm clothes for people living on the streets during the freezing Delhi winters. She steps out on the weekends to make rounds of her neighbourhood in Greater Kailash, to collect plastic thrown away plastic bottles lying on the streets. She manages school exams as well as a self-launched social work project, all at the same time.

When the idea first hit Devika, the undertaking of it seemed quite daunting. She researched and brainstormed for weeks on end, to finally come up with her game plan. She launched a fund-raising campaign through Ketto, as recently as a couple of weeks ago, and approached various sources for collection of bottles. She tied up with her own school G.D Goenka Public School, as well as the RWAs of a few neighbourhoods, to collect waste PET (polyethylene terephthalate) bottles. A few of her friends have even linked arms with her to aid in this initiative.

Since launching her campaign, Devika has been in talks with at least three such organisations which recycle plastic to manufacture into fabric. One such company that specialises in this is Waste2Wear. They have gained a lot of popularity since they began cleaning up the plastic in the oceans and using those to manufacture yarns of thread. The bottles are first broken into flakes, and then made into pellets. The pellets are spun into yarns of thread, and then made into fabric. It takes at least 5 bottles to make one large t-shirt, and 25 to make a fleece jacket. Devika’s current target is to collect at the very least 500 bottles in the duration of this project.

Young Devika had developed a temperament for social work early on in her life. She has volunteered with Teach for India, the Robin Hood Army and Seva Bharti. She has also been involved in educating underprivileged children as well as participating in food drives for the poor. And to top it all, she has been tutoring five underprivileged children personally, along with her mother, for the past one year.

“Honestly, poverty and degrading environment were the two key issues which urged me to take this initiative. Besides the two, I was driven by the urge to do something different,” she says . Nature Communications, in one of their studies found that 90 per cent of all the plastic that ends up in oceans comes from South Asia, and from China and India specifically. Moreover, the majority of it has been said to flow in from the Ganga and Indus rivers. We are truly in dire need of initiatives like Devika’s to create a healthy living environment.

Beginning her project from her own home and neighbourhood, she quite literally gave meaning to the phrase “charity begins at home.” She believes in Gandhi’s words of wisdom, that one must be the change they wish to see in the world. And the need to be that change in the world and be an active participant among the youth of India, became the reasons behind her initiative.

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