Deepali Tulpule is often met with an assorted collection of electronics when she opens the door to exit her home in Palma Springs, Dubai. The most recent one, a mixer-grinder. ‘Someone had just left the defunct equipment at our doorstep,’ says Deepali.

This might sound unusual, but is just another day for the Tulpules, albeit one full of discarded electronics. Their backyard has a bin full of old mobile phones, leaky batteries, faulty chargers and outdated laptops. The boot of their car at the moment has 12 damaged and worn-out laptops. All this e-junk accumulating around their house is thanks to their teenaged daughter Riva, who has emerged as an eco-warrior in Dubai, having collected tonnes of e-waste for recycling. During Ramadan earlier this year, Riva teamed up with seven school students to collate 20,148kg of electronic waste under their community banner WeCareDxb.

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A student of Gems Modern Academy, Dubai, 14-year-old Riva has been running an e-waste collection campaign for the past three years. The idea for the campaign first came to her in 2017, says Riva, when she noticed a drawer full of electronic items in her mother’s cupboard. ‘We were moving houses and I was helping mum clean up, when I saw several old phones, chargers, batteries and a CD player crammed inside a shelf. I was taking them out to discard them when my mum warned me about this not being the correct way to dispose of electronics as it could have harmful effects on the environment,’ she says.

Curious about e-waste and its appropriate disposal methods, Riva surfed the internet and also referenced her younger sister’s picture book Rubbish and Recycle. The information she gathered from these sources revealed that every year more than 50 million tonnes of e-waste is discarded by people worldwide – e-waste that contains toxic substances including lead, bromide, arsenic, mercury and other lethal materials. Dumped in landfills, these substances leach into the soil and contaminate groundwater.

Riva and seven school students collected 20,148kg of electronic waste during Ramadan this year under the WeCareDxb banner

Riva realised the best way to stop polluting the environment was to recycle the waste.

With all this crucial information Riva and her parents decided to drive to their nearest garbage disposal centre to get rid of their e-waste. But to their surprise there was no separate bin for e-waste disposal. ‘We brought all the junk back home. This incident made me think that many others in the city would be facing a similar dilemma. I really wanted to do something about this pressing problem,’ Riva recollects.

She decided to take the onus of e-waste collection on herself to move away from the landfill and instead focus on the recycle bin. And she started at her own building. With the help of her parents Riva made a few brochures and distributed them among her neighbours. But when not many residents came forward with their e-waste, Riva decided to employ the help of social media. She created a Facebook page – WeCareDXB – and posted an appeal video urging Dubai residents to contact her with their e-waste.

‘That video had a great impact; it reached over 80,000 people. Emails from across Dubai started pouring in and I set a target of collecting 500kg of e-waste,’ says Riva.

As it was the month of Ramadan, her parents were home earlier from work. ‘Every evening we would drive to a new home in a different locality gathering bags full of old gadgets. We also got support from the community – for larger appliances, a transport truck owner chipped in with free pick-ups on weekends,’ says Rahul Tulpule, Riva’s father.

With the overwhelming support from people Riva was able to double her initial target and ended up collecting one tonne of e-waste, which she deposited for recycling at Enviroserve, Dubai. 

Motivated by this tremendous response, she decided to follow up the campaign during Ramadan in 2018 as well. That year she collected 3.4 tonnes of e-waste – and promised herself to make the collection bigger and bolder next time around.

Alternate options

So, in 2019 she formed a team with seven other school students so as to reach more Dubai homes willing to give away their old electronics. ‘During my collection drives I realised that people were throwing e-waste into random garbage bins because of lack of awareness and not having alternative options. My mission was now to reach many more homes and I knew I could not do that alone,’ says Riva. She chose her friends, from different schools living in various localities, so that together they could collect e-waste from several areas across Dubai.

To co-ordinate with her friends – Tanisha Khurana, Neel Praveen, Samriddhi Mohta, Ananya Chatterjee, Syona Srivastava, Ananya Gupta and Anvay Joshi – Riva made a Whatsapp group and kept a collection diary. Her friends were based in Bur Dubai, Karama, Jumeirah Village Triangle and Jumeirah Park. ‘Working together was empowering,’ says Riva, ‘Now each member could explore their own contacts and focus on their assigned areas.’

E-waste specialist Enviroserve offset the lack of electronic recycling in the UAE with its set up recently
Stefan Lindeque

Riva and her friends learnt to strike a balance between juggling their school studies and checking emails and planning pickups. Along the way there were many light-hearted moments and some valuable life lessons. ‘Sometimes there were awkward questions and we ended in odd situations,’ says Riva. ‘Some people wanted to know if I would pay them for the e-waste they were giving me, and if I was getting any monetary benefits from running this campaign. Another day I was called for e-waste donation and shown a wall-mounted TV and an in-use washing machine. I had to politely tell them that I do not have a plumber or an electrician to do these things,’ laughs Riva.

Planning for the campaign helped Riva learn time management, formal communication etiquette and team work.

And then it all took a life of its own. The outcome of the student partnership led to schools and corporates joining in the e-waste collection drive. Seven city-based schools provided three tonnes. Internal collection drives were also organised in the offices of DP World, Landmark Group, Topaz Energy, BMW AGMC and the Indian Consulate, resulting in another seven tonnes of e-waste. ‘We even got complimentary rides through Hubun, a Dubai-based start-up, and the services of a green truck from our recycling partner Enviroserve,’ says Riva.

In just three weeks Riva and the student team collected over 20 tonnes of e-waste that they deposited for recycling at Enviroserve, Dubai. ‘This was an exhilarating moment. We achieved more than what we had set out to do. The adulation and appreciation I received from my teachers and friends has encouraged me to be part of more social causes,’ says Riva, who was recently felicitated and also invited by the Dubai Science Park for a talk on her campaign. 

When not busy with her community endeavours Riva is a typical teenager who loves playing tennis and basketball. A rack of medals won at sporting events adorn the wall of her room. The self-confessed Harry Potter fan enjoys studying chemistry, but is yet to decide on a future career path. For now community matters take centrestage.

What’s next? ‘Now I’m planning to get funds to help girls [in rural areas in India] get uniforms and books,’ says Riva. In 2020 she also plans to take her e-waste campaign a notch higher with a bigger team covering other emirates in the UAE.

Helping rural women in India

Riva hands out sanitary napkins to rural girls in Maharashtra, India

Besides e-waste collection, the confident sports-loving grade nine student has also done her bit for rural girls in Maharashtra, India, by distributing a year’s supply of sanitary napkins. After watching the Hindi movie Padman in November 2018, Riva was deeply moved by the plight of women from low-income families who cannot afford to buy sanitary pads. ‘I found out that only 18 per cent women in India used hygienic sanitary products and that over 82 per cent could not afford it.’ 

She again made an appeal video, this time requesting people to donate Dh20 (a sufficient amount to provide a young girl with a year’s supply of sanitary napkins). Within a month she was able to garner enough funds to support over 700 girls. Her efforts were further lauded when she was nominated for the UAE Citizen for Change award in Dubai, organised by Japanese watch brand Citizen.