Waste Management in an Age of Disposable Goods

Last month, I visited Goonj, a Delhi-based NGO which began in 1998 with a focus on the reuse of clothing. Now a decade old, the organization distributes over 20,000 kilograms of material ranging from clothes to school supplies to computers throughout South Asia every month.

Though I was primarily there to evaluate the possibilities of partnering Ujaala’s efforts in the Pacific Northwest with Goonj, the feature of my visit was a tour of their sorting facilities, which turned out to be quite an impressive operation. What began as a small organization quite similar to Ujaala’s has visibly evolved into a well-planned and thoughtfully executed process of collecting, sorting, recycling, packaging, and distributing various material through a network of NGOs spread across the country.

For example, Ujaala’s clothing drive in Portland last year concentrated its efforts around clean and wearable clothing, due to limited resources like washing machines and volunteer hours available to sort and package the clothes. At Goonj, clothes are sorted based on type and condition, with torn or otherwise damaged clothing reused for other purposes including drawstrings, sanitary napkins, and other items. Lightly damaged clothes are repaired with sewing machines. Everything is finally made into sets which are tied together with a thin strip of salvaged cloth.

Apart from collection and processing, the organization’s mission was quite obviously applied in the other steps of its process. The sorting efforts described above were staffed by members of the local community, and used as an opportunity to provide incomes to individuals in need. At the other end of the chain, Goonj works with its partner NGOs to use the donated materials as incentives for positive behavior rather than simple charity, which could mean something as simple as giving the school supplies to attentive students. To top it all off, the organization does its own printing on the backsides of used paper.