San Francisco doctor tackles widespread garbage problem

February 25, 2013 1:24:50 AM PST
A Bay Area doctor has launched a unique program to tackle a large scale problem in many developing countries. It's an ingenious solution to a widespread health threat. And it doesn't involve expensive technology, just lots of limber hands and a little bit of incentive.

"What we're seeing here is rope the village women have spun," Dr. David Priest said.

Priest believes that colorful rope could be a lifeline to the developing world. First, it helps to know that when he's not fighting cancer at St. Mary's Medical Center in San Francisco, Priest is battling a different kind of health threat -- garbage. And he says he found an epidemic during a trip to Northern India.

"It's a colossal health problem with this much garbage," Priest said. "Many, many children have lived their lives in the garbage."

But during the trip, he had an idea. Along with colleague Harendra Joshi, Priest launched a non-profit called the Green Village Zero Rubbish Project. Using a small amount of seed money, the group set up a system to pay villagers to collect the mountains of recyclable trash.

"You're rewarding them with [a] little bit of money, so there's incentive to come and do this," Joshi said.

We've collected 50,000 pounds of garbage," Priest said.

The plan seemed like an instant success. The group was able to secure recyclers willing to buy the sorted materials, defraying much of the cost. With one exception -- plastic bags.

"They don't want plastic bags. There isn't a recycling capability, there isn't an industry in India to handle that at this point," Priest said.

He says the bags make up a large percentage of the garbage. But then came his second inspiration, to turn thousands of plastic bags into commercially useable rope, by weaving them together.

"They're real ropes, can be used for anything, any ordinary household use," Priest said.

In fact, within a short time, villagers adapted the technique beyond just rope, weaving the multi-colored plastic bags into an incredible variety of plates, bowls, and baskets. They're even selling them at local markets. Add a little bamboo, and one design becomes a functional chair.

"They've been doing that, but with bamboo and other material, but no one ever thought about making it from plastic," Joshi said.

They say the project is so successful it's already up and running in three villages, with two more to be added soon. And since there's no shortage of garbage, "My hope is that as we get nmore expertise, as we fill in all the necessary pieces, that we can take this concept and expand it from our cluster of pilot villages in Behar to the entire state of Behar, throughout India, then eventually into neighboring countries and eventually around the world," Priest said.

More than 2,500 villagers are participating in the rubbish program, which is a little more than six months old.

To learn more about the Green Village Zero Rubbish Project, click here.

Written and produced by Tim Didion


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