"Cheer Project: From Earth to Earth" is the Student Winner in the Social Impact category of the 2020 Core77 Design Awards competition.
The region of Himachal Pradesh, an Indian state in the Himalayas, is an idyllic landscape of mountains, snow, and pine trees. Gaurav MK Wali, a design student at the National Institute of Fashion Technology Kangra and resident of Himichal Pradesh developed an interest in the environmental impacts of the region, only to discover the beautiful pine trees and their needles coating the forest floor are fuel for a dangerous forest fire just waiting to erupt.
Wali's research on the topic revealed that the material aspects of pine needles are a material dream and, in the case of forest fires, an environmental nightmare. The structure of pine needles makes the plant difficult to decompose, which means needles coat the forest floor in layers. These needles also have lignin present in them, a substance that proves to be an excellent fuel. On top of all this, Himichael Pradesh is a water scarce region, and the dense layerings of pine needles on the forest floor coated with a natural layer of water-resistant silicon makes it difficult for natural processes to deliver water to the earth underneath it.
In the midst of his research, Wali discovered this is information the community was more or less aware of for centuries, and came upon the craft of pine needle coiling specifically used by local artisans to curb forest fires. This connection turned a light bulb on for Wali during his design process. "Unfortunately, this craft is at the brink of extinction due to declining demand and loss of relevance," Wali says. "Having spent time with these artisans made me empathize with their problems and to think of ways to help them."
The result of this research, Cheer Project, is a material exploration resulting in a 100% bio-based, compostable, recyclable, fire retardant, water repellent pine needle composite that causes no pollution or waste in the process. The entire process of production is designed to be practiced as a sustainable craft to generate income in the rural areas of Himachal, and to utilize an abundant and free material that simultaneously fights forest fires in the process.
The proposed model of operation is circular in nature. The locals procure raw material from pine forests. Needles are then processed in purpose-built machinery (shredder, in this case). It is further mixed with locally-sourced natural polymers to create a bio-composite material which could be used by artisans for making sustainable objects like containers, vases, frames, boxes, etc. Once linked to the market, the revenue generated from this model would help strengthen the rural economy, restore the pride of the artisans and generate a sense of ownership in the local communities.
After plenty of material exploration involving toxic resins, Wali ultimately came across a material solution that allowed for the products to be entirely biodegradable. "I came across 'Layie', a natural glue made of wheat flour and corn starch. Upon mixing, layie enhances the earthy, Christmas-y smell of pine needles filling the room with a balsamic fragrance. It was exactly what I was looking for," Wali notes of his material exploration phase. Initially interested in compression molding using an epoxy mixture, the designer ultimately landed on creating his products using terracotta and building techniques such as slab work, pinching and press moulding.
Finally, Cheer Project's manufacturing methods were tested in an experimental workshop conducted in collaboration with the Development Commissioner, Handicrafts and Handlooms Export Corporation of India. The month-long workshop was conducted with twenty artisans who learnt about and practiced the newly developed techniques.
The novelty of a solution like Cheer Project lies in its multifaceted approach to change, a dedication not only to environmental impact, but also income generation in the local community. It's a model one can only hope other companies aiming to make an impact in the world will be eager to emulate.
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