Garbology classes help to raise a new generation of garbage fighters

Garbology: “During this ‘Follow The Bottle’ month, our kids monitor the route of the bottle from source to finish,” explains Shyamala Raja, coordinator of Garbology, a waste management program now running in ten schools in Rajapalayam, Tamil Nadu (five of which are government-aided). Children learned how to make an informed decision about the container when they chose to have a soft drink last month as part of the ‘Map My Soft Drink’ campaign.

“A PET bottle would sit in a landfill for hundreds of years, but a metal container can be recycled and a glass bottle can be reused at least 30 times,” Shyamala explains. The Garbology adventure began in 2011 with the launch of WasteLess, a non-profit social enterprise, by Auroville-based social entrepreneurs Ribhu Vohra and Chandrah Nusselein.

“We believe that by educating people about garbage, we can make big changes in the way we produce, dispose of, and think about it.” Our hope was for children to become changemakers at home as well. Many people take their newfound knowledge home with them and use it to make changes in their own lives.”

Nirmala Raju, who runs the CSR activities of the Rajapalayam-based RAMCO company, launched the concept to Arsha Vidya Mandir in Chennai in 2014 after being impressed with the study underpinning the program. “We have the Swachh Bharat Mission,” she says, “but what is the mechanism for handling our waste?” At Rajapalayam, she simultaneously facilitated the subject in ten schools, five of which were government-aided and five of which were part of the RAMCO group. She also met with the State Education Minister, and the subject was included in textbooks in 2019 and is now taught in 234 Tamil Nadu government schools. The activity-based programs were put on hold during the pandemic, but are now fully operational.

“We signed an MOU to train government school teachers in the subject and integrate the concept into textbooks,” Nirmala says, noting that the program’s impact on children’s behavior is one of the main reasons why it should be included in the curriculum. Representatives from schools from all 37 districts were trained during four sessions in Tiruchirappalli and Rajapalayam as a follow-up. “We were working on Garbology topics with government teachers.” “Millions of textbooks were printed in Tamil, English, and Arabic,” Nirmala explains, noting that the chapter on carbon and its compounds included information on plastics.

Garbology: An educational tool

Garbology 101, one of the first programs, is an interactive instructional tool for children aged six to twelve. Garbolite, a free online version, features 13 classroom activities that have been thoroughly tested to instill waste management knowledge and motivate behavioral change.

Ribhu, who quit his corporate job in the Netherlands in 2008 to travel the world for a year, observed that trash management was a problem in every country he visited. He spent more than three years investigating innovative and sustainable techniques to boost resource recovery from Indian waste while working on grassroots waste management programs with citizens and local government. Garbology 101 was created with the help of Chandrah, who has a background in child-centered education.

Apart from studying best practices from throughout the world, the duo collaborates with instructors and students to build the programs. “We sit in the back of the classrooms, watching the teacher unroll our content and observing student reactions,” Ribhu explains. “We notice a strong desire to share information, with 97 percent of the children returning home and sharing the information with their parents.” The kNOw Plastic software, which incorporates a Memory Game, is the team’s most recent product.

“We began the activity-oriented program from Std I to Std VIII in 2014, and we are seeing a clear improvement in students’ behavior toward trash management,” says Arpitha Reddy, Deputy Correspondent at Arsha Vidya Mandir in Chennai. Segregating garbage at the source, weighing and tracking the amount of waste generated every day, and composting waste at school are just a few of their operations.

“Children learn to live sustainably in a systematic approach and are now familiar with topics like conscious consumption and resource conservation that are related to Solid Waste Management and composting.” “The senior students analyze the waste’s impact; they know what goes to the corporation and what will end up in the landfill,” Arpitha explains. The school employs ECF (Elemental Chlorine Free) wheat straw paper, has a system of lending textbooks to the next batch of students, and students use stainless lunch boxes and bottles.

Little waste fighters


Garbology creating Little waste fighters refer to the first group of eight to ten-year-olds who began learning Garbology at Deviah Memorial Preparatory (DMP) school in Bittangala, Coorg. They compete in a Waste Relay Race to sort a jumbled bag of rubbish into four categories: wet, dry, hazardous and rejects. When faced with a choice between a bottle of nail polish and a bottle of perfume, they make an informed decision and place it in the appropriate basket. The game teaches children how to separate solid waste amid the din of laughter and bewilderment.

According to Savita Chengappa of the family-run boarding school, which was formed in 1980, garbology was introduced in 2017. Low-waste and environmentally friendly initiatives are implemented at the school. They performed The Garbology Skit in Kannada six months into their study and took the show to government and tribal schools. “Nearly 800 children and their teachers were reached out to.” “Children are the best teachers for other children and their parents,” Savita explains.

The subject is part of the curriculum, according to Pavan Aiyappa, a volunteer teacher at DMP. “To the four R’s of waste management — Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, and Refuse,” says Pavan, “we’ve added two additional R’s – Rethink and Repair.” The lessons encourage students to consider the concepts of ‘Want and Need,’ as well as acts such as ‘Use and Throw,’ in order to ‘Repair and Increase’ the life cycle.

Pavan, a mechanical engineer, and planter travel between Coorg and Bengaluru on a regular basis. He claims that by the end of 2018, the DMP children had “taught” the notion to over 800 students and their teachers in various schools. “We’re restarting the project after COVID-19 put it on hold,” he explains.

Shyamala is proud of the children’s creative ways of applying what they’ve learned in class to their daily lives. The children created a mobile urinal out of bubble top water containers, a lampshade out of single-use plastic, sofas out of old tyres, and scientific teaching aid out of old stuff lying around the house at Swaach Vaibhavam, a festival on garbology themes held at PSK auditorium in PACR Educational Trust Campus in Rajapalayam. “All of these are indications of the shift in thinking,” she explains.

The Garbology program was kept alive during the pandemic thanks to WhatsApp. “The majority of our pupils come from low-income families and did not have access to online resources.” As a result, we used social media, sent films, and shared their waste management experiences. “With the Follow the Bottle initiative, we’ve kept the notion alive and are revitalizing it,” she explains.

Many teachers are reporting new behaviors, such as children bringing birthday goodies that aren’t packaged and homemade items instead of plastic-wrapped chocolates.

“Madam, your face pops up every time I check for a resin code on a plastic product,” a former student told Shyamala. “It feels good to be recalled this way,” she says cheerfully, “the resin codes inform us how safe or toxic the plastic is.” The code must be printed on the plastic by the manufacturer.” 

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