Bag it like it is

Her work first gained prominence when she introduced upcycled products, by way of bags and baskets fashioned out of cartons. Soon, this line expanded to include trendy accessories made from milk cartons, scrap fabric and cement sacks.

A ceramicist from NID, Devika Krishnan, who was recently in Chennai to talk about her bags, got involved with creating occupations for villagers through Dastkar Ranthambore from 1993. In 2009, she zeroed in on recycling packaging material, specifically milk cartons.

Her baskets, which are typically made using 26 cartons, often feature eye-catching graphic weaves. “The baskets are ultra-strong and can last up to seven years,” she says.

The genesis

The village of Nallurhalli, Bengaluru, in the backyard of the software industry of Whitefield, is sandwiched between corporate and residential hubs.

It was here in 2013 that Krishnan helped set up Joy at Work, a small enterprise to upcycle waste — it is based on a successful model Anu LIFE that she had helped set up earlier. Krishnan enrolled the wives of migrant workers, teaching them hand and business skills from scratch.

As the group’s numbers grew, products expanded organically to purses, paper beads, trash cans and more. The designs are in demand and they are always short of supply. Meanwhile, the women have picked up pace, taking three hours to weave a basket instead of the earlier four days. The smallest is priced at ₹300 and the largest at ₹500. During festival seasons, they make gift bags based on custom orders, making up to 40 thamboolam bags from one old silk sari.

Krishnan takes pride in the truly sustainable character of Joy at Work. They deal with only solid waste that fetches very low value in the market. She explains, “Old clothes, fabric scraps, shoes and packaging material — there’s no value, unlike water bottles and rubber tyres, which do fetch a good rate.” While other manufacturers upcycle milk cartons by shredding them, compressing and mixing them with epoxy resin to make roof tiles and furniture, Krishnan points out these end products will not degenerate. “A product is recyclable but only if it is recycled,” she says.

The beauty of the set-up is also that it is small-scale. Says Krishnan, “A lot of NGOs feel 50 women have to be hired, but it is difficult to manage so many women. We need at least 15 such set-ups in this area.”

Women power

She encourages women to bring and train a friend and also insists on quality products. The onus of this responsibility has led to a great solidarity amongst the women, giving them problem-solving capabilities across the board.

The larger win is that the programme has broken down prevalent social and gender barriers. Both the husband and the wife have a say in their relationship. Children go to school and there is stability in income and pride in work.

The women earn up to ₹8,000 per month, depending on productivity. One of the women, Rekha, funds her daughter’s schooling, while her husband takes care of their son. Another, Kamala, is flying her entire family to Bhubaneshwar with her own money and her husband is very proud of her. He boasts, “Meri biwi mere ko plane mein leh ja rahi hain!” (My wife is taking me by plane).

In a couple of years, Krishnan plans to turn over the enterprise to the women, making them independent.

From local, this popular group has gone global. Joy at Work has recently tied up with Rimagined, a retail company that sells only upcycled products. With their online presence, they can ship worldwide. Krishnan is keen to hold workshop-cum-sale events to spread awareness about the brand. Ready to replicate the model for anyone, she says, “The more we upcycle, the better it is for the planet.”

Joy at Work products retail at Goli Soda in Chennai. They can be bought on

Woven art
  • Questions are often raised about why their products cost as much as they do, given they’re fashioned out of ‘rubbish’. “Initially, we would try to explain the amount of labour involved in upcycling products. But now, the women have found an ingenious method. They pull out smelly, unwashed cartons and ask the client to wash and sanitise them, before cutting and weaving the smallest of forms — a cup. Ten minutes into the task, and they are ready to buy baskets without questions,” says Krishnan.

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 4:33:43 PM |

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