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Reimagining rubbish

David Priest, M.D.

Alum’s idea brings cleaner landscape, pride, and money to India

Travel is transformative. Neuroradiologist and chronic wayfarer David Priest, M.D. (Class of ’95), knows that well.

But when he planned his January 2012 trip up India’s River Ganges, he never imagined it would lead to thousands of discarded plastic bags becoming brightly hued iPad covers, one-of-a-kind woven tote bags, and multicolored handmade baskets.

During that 10-day expedition, Priest was repeatedly struck by the sight of trash in villages along the way. He spoke with new friend Vishnu Singh, the tour boat operator and a longtime naturalist. “Vishnu said, ‘It’s the elephant in the room that no one wants to talk about.’”

The litter throughout the region has been accumulating for decades — and it’s not just an aesthetic problem, Priest says. “It gets mixed in with animal and human waste, and it’s a public health menace. Kids grow up playing in it.”

Taxpayer-funded municipal garbage collection doesn’t exist in India. But Priest, who lives in San Francisco, had a flash of inspiration: What if he could raise money to pay villagers to collect and sort the trash? Priest mentioned his idea to Singh, who agreed to help. And the Green Village Zero Rubbish (GVZR) project was born.

Discarded plastic bags woven into rope are used to create brightly colored baskets, clothing, and even furniture at a village shop through the Green Village Zero Rubbish project. (Photo courtesy of David Priest, M.D.)

The initiative has engaged thousands of residents of four northeast India villages in the collection, sorting, and processing of trash: some 105,000 pounds of it so far. Besides a cleaner landscape — Priest saw a noticeable difference on his June trip to India — every pound collected yields a few rupees for participating villagers.

The GVZR project is fueling other new economic activity: recovered recyclables (glass, cardboard, plastic bottles, aluminum, and other metal) are now being sold to area industries to help fund the venture.

And the most ubiquitous nonrecyclable item, the plastic bag? There’s now a place for that, too.

“The plastic bags are an ecological disaster,” Priest says. “So one of our innovations was to start weaving them into rope” — which local artisans are using to craft baskets, iPod cases, even furniture. “It’s all being made in this village shop. These are traditional handicrafts; we’re just using new materials.”

Priest believes the GVZR project’s simplicity is its biggest strength; he hopes it can be replicated elsewhere in India — and beyond. “This is low-tech and low-cost. It’s highly scalable.”

(Photo courtesy of David Priest, M.D.)

Priest remains happily involved in GVZR, particularly helping to secure continued funding. But it belongs to the people of Bihar, and it works because of them. From its outset, the project had the support, creative input, and “buy-in” of local leaders, Priest says. At every level in each participating village, the endeavor has “an Indian face,” he adds.

He loves that through the project, villagers have empowered themselves to tackle a multifaceted problem that’s dogging cities around the globe. A book at the GVZR garbage collection site tells a story of growing confidence and pride.

“We have a register, and every time someone comes to bring garbage to us, we have them sign our book. But many people are illiterate, so they leave a thumbprint” in lieu of a signature, Priest says. “Over the past year, at least 20 residents have transitioned — thanks to a sense of pride and initiative — from leaving a thumbprint to a written signature.”

By Susan Maas, a freelance writer who lives in Minneapolis

Learn more about the Green Village Zero Rubbish project at www.gvzr.org.

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