Please tell us about yourself

Specialized in industrial design, Rhea Gupta graduated from the Srishti Institute of Art, Design, and Technology in Bengaluru. When she was in college, Gupta chose to do her primary research for a class on “upcycling” at construction sites. She found that among other garbage were a litter of plastic sacks in which the cement came in. These sacks are made of a hardy variety of plastic – polypropylene, making them non-bio degradable.

She could have completed her course project like other students, but societal concern was her major motto of an up cycling project she undertook. Urban India is booming with industrialization and commercialization. But how well are the waste generated out of it put into correct and profitable use ? Did you know, India is the second largest producer of cement in the world. This might add a feather to our caps, but wait did we ever think of those huge quantities of cement sacks strewn around construction sites and their impact on our environment ?. Mind you these sacks contain polypropylene in huge quantities whose major ingredient is plastic!

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Tell us about your work

During her course at Srishti, students were asked to take on an up cycling project, and for this, Rhea decided to conduct some of her primary research on construction sites. Urban India has a booming construction economy, and of all the waste generated on these sites, what was most noticeable to Rhea were the plastic cement bags lying around. As for the people physically building these structures, Rhea says 90 percent of this workforce are internal migrants. They usually live in their workplaces in shabby makeshift options with uneven surfaces. Not an uncommon sight to most of us. Owners or contractors of such sites do not provide comfortable housing options, and because migrant laborers are bound by poor pay, they do not even have the option of renting close by.

How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and fascinating career?

As a kid, I always loved to manipulate materials with the intentions of creating new things out of ordinary things. For me, final output doesn’t matter much, but I loved the process of making that kept me occupied. I really love the idea of a mess!

This idea of yours is totally unimaginable. How did you come up with this ?

During my pre-thesis project at Bangalore, we were given the concept of up cycling to work with. Seeing so much of cement sacks choking up the drains, thrown across the streets and running down the cars on the streets (owing to the state of our country, the picture is not difficult to paint ). It made me question it’s presence at such a vast scale. I then began taking rounds of the sites just to understand the accumulation better. conversations with the laborers and so on. Only then I saw the dire situation of a migrant worker. I knew it then and there that I had to use this waste material for the betterment of a community working under unjust conditions. The idea of a holdall is dated back to war times when most army personnel would carry a similar thing while on the move. My inspiration came from one such freedom fighter, that being my own grandfather! The intent was to create a design similar in function in context that could help those who were in need of an intervention. And thus holdall was born.

What kind of support did you receive from the society ?

I have been buzzed up by construction sites that are willing to collaborate to offer the up cycled holdall for their workers. I have been contacted by various investors and crowd funders and many NGO’S to team up for the idea. The support has been overwhelming to see how a small idea can ignite a spark to help, in a common man’s heart. I am now seeking a team who are keen on helping me with manufacturing.

What was that dose of inspiration that made you choose construction sites in particular ?

Every product that comes in our interaction has the potential to be smartly reused before it exhaustively enters the landfills. If the potential of the waste is realized by those who create it, would lead to a enriched circular economy. This idea in particular kept me going and I realized the fact that how brutally we are disturbing the ecosystem and in return not doing anything to restore the lost balance. So, this is my way to restore the lost balance and also promote a better living standard among the not-so-fortunate masses of India and the rest of the world.

Which other parts of the country need an urgent up cycling reform ?

Our country is well versed with producing makeshift products; use and reuse what is in hands; figuring out ways to realize potential of our possession. Mind and creativity teamed up with curiosity to do is most important but is gradually reducing. India happens to be the fifth largest producer of e-waste globally. Who would have thought ?. Practice can be initiated in any part of the country but what matters the most is awareness regarding the waste generation we partake and its management.

You would have faced many hurdles, how did you stand firm against all of them ?

I had a set of well trained faculty from Shrishti Institute who helped me out primarily. My project guides Mrs. Naga Nandini and Mrs. Sanchita Dasgupta guided me through every direction and motivated me to get into the roots of the problem. It was challenging to get comfortable with the workforce due to the language barriers. I liked the challenge I was facing and there was an initial hesitance by the workforce to share their problems with me and invite me to their homes. Overcoming all these situations made me more sensitive towards the situation.

During a round of interviews in the city, she tells about the time she asked few workers about their house. “One of them laughed and said “If we’ve come from Bihar then our house would also be there, no?”. This is when I realized that none of these workers have no real home in the city. Moreover, for them to have a real home in a new city is something they do not even think is possible.” What was common to all these laborers was that they slept on site. Not on comfortable bedding, but on thin coir mats, laid out over uneven surfaces. After the interviews, I realized that this assignment was about more than just a good grade.

What is Upcycling and how is it done ?

Upcycling, very simply, is the practice to up the cycle of a product. It is the process of giving life to an object or material that appears exhausted, and is ready to make its way to a landfill. When a product is upcycled, less waste is generated. Traditionally, a holdall is a large rectangular bag with handles and a shoulder strap, used for carrying clothes and other personal belongings.

Tell us more about your Upcylced holdall project in detail.

Made out of four or more used cement bags, the upcycled cement holdall is stitched together with the thread that these bags are made of. Once stitched, it is used as a mattress, which can be rolled up after it’s used and carried around. It’s held together by straps that can be worn, resembling a backpack. It is six feet in length, and 3 feet in breadth. “The Upcycled Hold-all is designed for that section of the economy that have unsanctioned, or no homes at all. It is designed for those who work hard through long, unregulated working hours, and are not even promised a carefree, comfortable and restful sleep at night. It is designed for the migrant labor force of India,” says Rhea.