Bothered by all the garbage strewn across the streets, a couple of years ago, Lakshmi Menon, a resident of Ernakulam district in Kerala, decided to do something about it. She founded Pure Living, an organisation focused on finding sustainable livelihood solutions, whose first products were seed pens.
Talking to The Logical Indian, the eco-innovator recounts, "Whenever I used to visit Kerala, I was disturbed by seeing all the garbage that was thrown all over. So, that is when I came up with the idea of a seed pen - a paper pen with a seed in it - to replace the plastic pens. That is one of the first initiatives by Pure Living."
Lakshmi, who is an interior fashion and jewellery designer by profession, was practising as an artist in a gallery in San Francisco back then.
"Pure stands for Products Upcycled Recycled and Economised and we do it through Projects for the urban rural and egalitarian," she explains.
Currently, amid the COVID-19 crisis that has gripped the world, Lakshmi has come up with a new initiative - an eco-friendly and sustainable mattress called 'Shayya' which is made from the scrap that accumulates while making Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
These mattresses can help solve two pressing issues - first, waste management of the PPE scrap, and second, the lack of bedding at COVID care centres.
How Did The Idea Originate?
"When the COVID cases spiked in my village, the government had ordered every panchayat to start First Line Treatment Centres (FLTCs), each with a capacity of 50 beds. That brought in a huge demand for the mattress, pillow, pillow covers, etc. In Kerala alone, there are around 1,000 panchayats. So, the demand was for around 50,000 mattresses," recounts Lakshmi.
In the wake of the looming economic crisis, not many people came forward with donations. The panchayats were also finding it difficult to procure these essentials for the facility.
When a panchayat member exchanged these concerns with Lakshmi, she was also aware of the environmental impacts of PPE waste and other medical wastes generated due to activities related to COVID-19.
"Being a designer, I was in touch with a couple of large scale tailoring units. They had stopped all regular stitching with fabric and have shifted to making PPE gowns. So, when the panchayat member mentioned about the scarcity in mattresses, I wondered, why not make use of this?" says Lakshmi.
Lakshmi had initially started the project Shayya in March, to make mattresses using the tailoring scrap, which was otherwise burnt every day.
"I wanted to upcycle all this waste and donate it to the homeless. However, when I enquired to my friends who run tailoring units, they said they didn't have any fabric scrap, they only had the PPE scrap. So, I just wanted to give it a shot and collected a few samples," she says.
"The moment I felt it on my hands, it was very soft, fluffy, airy, and smooth - very soft against your skin, which would make it very suitable to lie on as well," she adds.
Meanwhile, her friends at the tailoring unit were also struggling to dispose of the PPE waste. While they tried to burn the heaps of waste that had accumulated over time, it created a lot of environmental issues.
"The panchayat member also told me that the nodal officer has instructed them to burn the mattress after each person leaves. That is another waste of resources, not to mention the environmental issues," she said.
Lakshmi collected these scraps from the unit, thus helping them in waste management. She then employed a few women to upcycle the scraps into bedrolls and began donating them to the panchayats.
Of the two manufacturing units Lakshmi contacted, one had six tonnes of waste and the other had three. These can make around 3,000 mattresses, claims Lakshmi.
How Are These Bedrolls Made?
"The scraps come in all shapes and forms. We take the larger ones and simply braid them - like how you braid your hair - and make it into a long rope form of around 35 m in length. The braid should be around 5 cm wide," says Lakshmi.
The standard size of a Shayya is 6ft x 2.5 ft. The braided clothes are then placed and tied together in a zigzag pattern.
"On plywood, I have fixed nails in the 6ft length with a gap of 2.5 ft. So, the rope can be attached on one end in the top corner and it can be woven around the nails from left to right. Then, from the top till the end, they can tie it with the same material to keep it intact. So there is no machine, no needle, no thread. And whatever is left behind, we make it into a pillow," explains Lakshmi.
Since it is a waterproof material, the bedrolls can be easily washed, disinfected, and reused as well.
Lakshmi says that these mattresses can also be used in other relief camps
"In Kerala alone, the monsoon has been hitting hard now. So, there are already camps that have been opened up for the flooded areas. Again, every person would need a mattress. So these could be used for the temporary shelters as well," she says.
As PPE kits will continue to be in use for a long time, their waste will also be generated in a considerable amount. "Hence, this could also be a permanent solution for the homeless. It can be regularly supplied to the homeless. They can also be engaged to make these mattresses," says Lakshmi.
Generating Employment Opportunities
Lakshmi has currently employed 10 women at the Pure Living centre in Arayankavu to make Shayya. Each woman is paid Rs 300 per day, which is also the cost of one Shayya.
"I have employed a few women in the neighbourhood who has lost their jobs. While we had been supporting them through other means, through this initiative, we were able to provide jobs for them," says Lakshmi.
"All these women are from the neighbourhood. They go home to have food and we don't have a very strict time regiment. One person makes one Shayya in a day. So I have told them that they can walk in whenever they feel like. If they want to take it home, they can do that also," she adds.
Till date, Pure Living has supplied 40 Shayya mattresses to the Amballur panchayat and is in the process of supplying 10 more. They have also supplied 25 mattresses to a panchayat in Idukki district through Lion's Club and have also received 200 orders from a corporate.
This is not the first time that Lakshmi has come under the limelight for her innovative solutions. She's also the brains behind the Chekutty dolls - the small cloth dolls with a smiling face made from damaged clothes to help revive the flood-struck weavers of Chendamangalam handloom. Chekutty had become a symbol of hope during the 2018 floods in Kerala, resonating with Keralites across the globe.