The Good Side of Waste: Looking for Value

by Monib Ahmad and Saif Ali

The Question

How can something as simple as a hand-made notebook be a lens to explore the loss of meaning in modern life?

We are sharing today our journey into the world of useful waste. It began with a visit to South Delhi’s Madanpur Khadar village which is home to a large informal waste segregation industry. If you live in Jamia Nagar and neighboring areas, it is very likely that the garbage from your dustbin ends up there to be segregated and stored before being sent to recycling plants. Many of the waste segregators are women. Their job is to recognise what can be recycled among everything that we recklessly toss into the garbage bin. Not only do they segregate recyclable from non-recyclable waste but they distinctly identify and grade 22 different kinds of plastic, paper and cardboard.
One of the kinds of waste that is segregated at Madanpur Khadar is A4 size printer paper. This is the very familiar paper that fills billions of drawers and almiras across the world. Hundred of kilos of half used(one side) printer paper is discarded as waste everyday in Delhi. Normally, the segregators at Madanpur will sort them out, tie the sheets up in bundles and send the bundles to Meerut or Muzzaffarnagar where they will be boiled down into pulp and then repurposed into fresh paper.
Instead of letting the paper go to a faraway recycling plant, we decided to do something interesting with it. We thought to ourselves, what if we bought this paper from the waste segregators at Madanpur and made notebooks out of it using our own hands? What if we taught people around Jamia Nagar how to make these notebooks? What if we taught the women of Madanpur to make these notebooks? Could we reclaim the meaningless waste of a consumerist society and endow it with the warmth of co-operation and manual work?
This is how the idea of the one-sided notebook was born. The idea is simple. We take a stack of A4 size papers one side of which is already printed on and bind it with the blank side up using needle and thread. You get to write on one side only – the good side. But the project is not about adding another assembly line to the millions of others around the world.

The Intention

The worldly benefit of an action is measured by quantitative parameters like revenue and welfare. The spiritual benefit of an action is measured by the quality of the intention behind it. The cost-benefit analysis of any project must balance between these two aspects of benefit to arrive at the correct course of action. Our actions can lead us away from the path we want to take if our intentions are not considered carefully enough. With this frame in mind, we can appreciate that mere rupee value of a hand-made notebook may not be high enough to justify an enterprise but recycling waste, treading more lightly on the earth, slowing down consumption and helping the poor will bring in the blessing of spiritual benefit. While economic benefits are instantly realized at the point of sale, the economic value of “goodness” is acquired over a period of time. This is why patience is a key to success in the spiritual path.  At its core the idea of making notebooks is a personal revolution. There are industries worth billions of dollars out to capitalize on our thirst for instant gratification, keeping us distracted from the arduous and painfully slow work of adding value to our lives. Everyday through many of the decisions that we take, we sacrifice our self-sufficiency at the altar of convenience. Our intention for this project was to reclaim our God given ability as human beings to fulfill our own needs and experience what it means to value a good beyond the price in rupees for which it can be bought.

The drawing in the picture shows a simple diagram of how we might source waste paper from the waste segregators from Madanpur Khadar village, turn that paper into hand-made one-sided notebooks, sell those notebooks and simultaneously create value for us, for the waste segregators, for our buyers, and for the community in the form of a reduced carbon footprint.

The Work

With the omen of the winter smog hanging over Delhi we got together early November of 2018 in a small group to teach ourselves how to make a notebook with our hands. We had not worked with our hands for decades and our fingers were not used to gripping, threading, holding or sewing. We ransacked our homes and hostel rooms and put together a big juicy ream of one sided print papers. We then partnered with the local publishing firm Books etc. to run an experimental notebook making workshop at Zakir Bagh. We went to the photostat shop and had the A4 sheets cut so their edges became satisfyingly straight. The binding technique used was a variation of the one which we learned from Osmani Sir from the Faculty of Education at Jamia Millia Islamia. The response from those who participated was very positive. We made almost 10 notebooks that day with the promise to make more on our own. We ended the evening with snacks and tea.

The Hope

The message we hope to place in people’s hearts is that making your own notebooks from wasted paper is not a waste of time. The idea that time must be valued by rupees is a mistaken concept that emerges from an equally mistaken notion that the measure of life’s success is by its productivity. You do not need to produce more in order to be more successful. Production and consumption are activities that are the means to a successful life, not an end for it. As we consume more and more, each act of consumption starts to mean less and less.

We found that while the notebooks we made were clumsy looking, they meant a lot more to us because we understood what had gone into making them. History is witness that communal co-operation and self-reliance in production are an integral part of self-determination. The biggest hope we have with this notebook making project is to see more participation from the community. We hope to create a stream of economic benefit for the waste segregators in Madanpur through the sale of A4 size paper and we want to see everyone in Jamia with a self-made one-sided notebook in their college bags. We hope that with this skill-based project, we can revive some meaning to material goods that is lost through the mindless consumption in a market society.

Read about our “Azadi” Notebook.

We have some exciting early designs of one-sided notebooks in our one-sided notebook showcase. Please do take a look! Click here.

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