A couple living in India discovered a way to make education more accessible — by monetizing plastic waste.
Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar opened the Akshar School in 2016 but quickly realized many students couldn’t afford to attend. As a solution, the small primary school in the northeast Indian state of Assam started accepting plastic waste as payment for school. Now, Sarma and Mukhtar have plans to build 100 schools with the same model in the next five years, according to Forbes.
“We wanted to start a free school for all,” Sarma told the Better India, “but stumbled upon this idea after we realized a larger social and ecological problem brewing in this area.”
Despite India’s push to guarantee a good education to all children between the ages of 6 and 14 under the country’s Right to Education Act of 2009, most students do not finish school, opting to work for their families.
Akshar is located in an area that has experienced multigenerational illiteracy. When the school first opened, many parents sent their children to work at stone quarries, where they would make the equivalent of $2.50 per day, instead of sending them to class.
Sarma and Mukhtar’s idea to incentivize the community to clean up their environment emerged from their own frustrations. At Akshar, they could smell toxic fumes from families nearby who burned plastic waste to keep warm during the winter and weren’t aware of the health risks.
Now, children ages 4 to 5 line up in front of the school on a weekly basis with grocery bags full of plastic waste, from straws to plastic bottles. Each child needs to bring at least 25 items to cover school fees.
When Akshar first opened, only 20 students could afford to attend. Since introducing the plastic waste program, over 100 are enrolled. To make up for the money the children could be making in the stone quarries, Akshar also offers a mentorship program in which older students tutor younger students and are paid with tokens that they can use to buy snacks, clothes, or toys at nearby shops or online.
Akshar’s curriculum focuses on making students aware of environmental issues, and the need to give back. Approximately 15,342 tons of plastic waste is wasted by Indians every single day, according to the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB), and about 60% of that is recycled. In 2018, India announced it will ban all single-use plastics by 2022 to fight plastic pollution.
Students at Akshar also learn important employment skills, practice installing solar panels, carpentry, and electronics. The school has managed to engage members of the community to join in on the effort to keep the area clean.
“We are already receiving a good response,” Sarma told the Better India, “as many families participating in the recycling drive have agreed to put up signs in front of their homes and shops to spread awareness.”