Can a Plastic Bottle Be a Ticket to an Education? In India, Yes.

16 April 2021 (UNEP)* — Deepika Hemrom’s parents pay her school fees with plastic. Not Master Card or Visa but actual plastic waste.

Photo: Akshar Foundation / 16 Apr 2021

They are participating in a ground-breaking scheme in Assam, India, that allows low-income families to use single-use plastic in lieu of money to pay for private schooling.

Deepika’s parents are manual labourers and this unique payment method means the 13-year-old, who dreams of becoming a doctor, can access a quality education, which would otherwise be out of her family’s financial reach.

The plastic-for-schooling programme was started by the Akshar Foundation and now working with the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP). Along with providing children with an education, it converts the plastic from parents into bricks, promoting recycling and combating pollution.  

Students at a school in Assam, India.
Students bring in their weekly “school fees” in the form of plastic waste. Photo: Hrishikesh Mehdi / Akshar Foundation

UNEP works with foundations such as Akshar through its Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. The global initiative educates young people about the ecological toll of single-use plastic and rewards those who help clean up waste. Participants can work through different levels of the programme, getting badges and certificates for their work and ultimately becoming community leaders.

“When we found out about Tide Turners, after being contacted by UNEP, we thought it was a perfect way for our students to join a global effort,” says Mazin Mukhtar, founder of the Akshar Foundation. “We also love that students would get a certificate from UNEP recognizing their hard work that could help them when they apply for colleges.”

“It is important to involve young people in the efforts to beat plastic pollution,” said Joyce Msuya, UNEP’s Deputy Executive Director. “Tide Turners helps empower the youth to understand and address the problem while encouraging them to become leaders in their communities.” 

A global problem

Humanity produces 300 million tonnes of plastic waste each year, of which about 8 million tonnes ends up in the ocean. In the last 50 years, plastic production has increased more than 22 times. Yet in 2015, only an estimated 9 per cent of plastics were recycled.  Tide Turners is helping curb this growing tide.

Globally, Tide Turners has reached over 360,000 youth in 28 countries, including 92,000 young people in India. “We’ve been inundated with requests to join the Tide Turners challenge by individuals, schools, clubs and plastic pollution campaigns,” says Gayatri Raghwa, UNEP’s campaign coordinator in India.

Tide Turners is one of several UNEP initiatives designed to get youth involved in addressing the world’s environmental problems. Other initiatives include The Global Youth Environment AssemblyGeo-6 for Youth Report, the Youth 4 Climate event ahead of COP26 and the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Akshar is expanding their remit and have recently signed an agreement with the Assam government to implement the “Akshar Education Model” in five government schools. This will serve as a pilot for state-wide implementation.

“The government has authorized us to implement our plastic school fees policy in these schools, making submission of household plastic mandatory, as well as launching plastic recycling centres in each school,” Mukhtar says.

“Campaigns like Tide Turners can be a great way of reaching out to young people, but what really counts is when such campaigns multiply and governments invest in solutions, such as recycling schemes and plastic bag bans,” says Msuya.

Circular economies

In the longer term, the solution to plastic waste is developing a circular economy where everything is recycled or reused. The UNEP circularity platform provides an understanding of the circularity concept, its scope and how it contributes to promoting sustainable consumption and production patterns.

It also offers a wide range of resources and features stories illustrating how various stakeholders have successfully adopted circular approaches.

“Circularity and sustainable consumption and production are critical to deliver on every multilateral agreement, from the Sustainable Development Goals to the Paris Agreement to the post-2020 global biodiversity framework, said Joyce Msuya. “Circular economies can also help chart a path to green recovery from the pandemic.”

Campaigns like Tide Turners can be a great way of reaching out to young people, but what really counts is when such campaigns multiply and governments invest in solutions, such as recycling schemes and plastic bag bans.  

Tide Turners is part of UNEP’s Clean Seas campaign, the world’s largest global alliance for combating marine plastic pollution with commitments covering more than 60 per cent of the world’s coastlines. In India it is supported by the World Wide Fund for Nature India, India’s Centre for Environment Education and the Indian Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change.

UNEP is working across Southeast Asia to counter maritime pollution, including through the India- Norway Marine Litter Initiative. UNEP has also been working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since 2018 to tackle single-use plastics pollution.

UNEP’s Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities provides guidelines, among others, on action to reduce plastic pollution in our oceans.


2021 Human Wrongs Watch

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