These SHG women selflessly handle used plastic sheets turning them into a boon on the short run.

Pink, blue and white in colour, plastic bags are the symbols of ‘use and throw’ culture that has become the scourge of our modern day life.

As you enter the office of Karaikudi-based Meenakshi self-help group (SHG) a nauseating smell emanates. A group of seven masked and uniformed women, unmindful of the bad odour and filth around, meticulously clean the covers and put them to dry.

The SHG members go around Sankarapuram to collect plastic waste for Rs.5 a kilo. They also collect it from nearby panchayat unions, hostels, shops and households. Everyday, each member collects 10 to 15 kilos of plastic waste. Panchayats and other unions yield 500 to 600 kilos of plastic waste.

They break and tear plastic waste and dry them before feeding it into the plastic crushing machine. They crush the plastic and fill them up in gunny bags weighing 10 kg, 15 kg and 50 kg. The SHG sells crushed plastic for Rs.30 per kg. People from various parts of the districts purchase crushed plastic waste for laying roads and other purposes.

“Everyday, we need to churn around 100 kg of waste plastic to be able to earn daily wages of Rs.100,” says Shanthi, secretary of Sankarapuram Panchayat Level Federation.

“Our aim is not only to earn money but also to create plastic-free environment at Sankarapuram,” says S. Selvi. They work between 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. on all days. “In fact, the Sivagangai District Collector paid a surprise visit to our unit on Christmas when we were engrossed in our work,” she says. He appreciated their work.”

After seeing the women toil under hazardous conditions, the Collector ordered a monthly health check up camp for them at the Government Hospital free of cost.

When Tamil Nadu Mahalir Thittam informed the SHG women about the project of cashing in on plastic waste, as many as 45 women opted to undergo training in Madurai, Dindigul and Ramanathapuram. Of the 45, only nine women belonging to various SHGs volunteered to venture into the project. Mahalir Thittam also plans to establish water facilities and a working shed for the benefit of women in the plastic waste unit,

“Basically, we all have a heart to help the needy,” says T. Kalaiselvi and adds “we have been helping women to get their old age and widow pensions.”

“One small plastic bag can spoil one foot of land. We use them for minimum time but it takes a gargantuan 1000 years to rot to nothing,” she says “And the loss is irreparable.”

“And when we learnt about this opportunity that would not only help us to earn but also to protect the environment and make our panchayat clean and tidy and free from the dangerous garbage, we naturally took it up.” she says.

With this successful venture, the women now plan to take it to the next level of preparing plastic moulds. With the crushed plastic waste, they plan to make moulds that are used in chairs, tables, plastic pots and pipes and in the process widen their business prospects.

The women also create awareness about the ill effects of plastic use and its impact on the earth. They speak about global warming and degradation to school students hoping that they would influence their parents and adults at home. They also organise anti-plastic skits and programme to deter throwing of plastic waste which can deteriorate the environment.

What will happen to their business if there are no plastic bags?

“We will try to explore other avenues,” says Shanthi.