It’s not unusual for children to arrive at school carrying bags. Usually, you might expect them to be full of books. But at one school in India, students are turning up with bags of trash.

The country has a plastic waste problem, generating 26,000 tonnes of the stuff every day. And in Pamohi, in the northeastern state of Assam, people had taken to burning it to keep warm in the harsh winters of the Himalayan foothills.

However, three years ago, when Parmita Sarma and Mazin Mukhtar arrived in the area and set up the Akshar Foundation School, they came up with an innovative idea: asking parents to pay their children’s school fees with plastic waste.

Mukhtar gave up a career as an aero engineer to work with disadvantaged families in the US before returning to India where he met Sarma, a social work graduate.

Together, they developed their idea, requesting that each child bring in at least 25 items every week. Although the foundation is a charity, supported by donations, its says the plastic waste “fees” encourage a sense of community ownership.

The school now has more than 100 pupils. Not only is it helping to improve the local environment, it has also started to transform the lives of local families by tackling child labour.

Instead of leaving school at a young age to work in the local quarries for $2.50 a day, older pupils are paid to teach the school’s younger children. As they progress academically, their pay increases.

 Pupils at the school learn essential digital literacy skills.
Pupils at the school learn essential digital literacy skills.
Image: Akshar Foundation

This way, families can afford to keep their children in school for longer. And not only do the pupils learn to manage money, they also get a practical lesson in the financial benefits of getting an education.

Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi's Nai Talim, or basic education, philosophy, Akshar's curriculum mixes practical training with conventional academic subjects. The goal is to support teenagers through school and into college or an apprenticeship.

Practical education includes learning how to install and operate solar panels and helping to run the school’s landscaping business, which works to improve local public spaces. The school has also partnered with an education technology charity to provide pupils with tablet computers and interactive learning materials to boost their digital literacy.

 What a typical day looks like for students at Akshar School.
What a typical day looks like for students at Akshar School.
Image: Akshar Foundation

Outside of the classroom pupils run an animal shelter, too, rescuing and treating injured or abandoned dogs before finding them homes locally. And the school recycling centre produces eco-bricks that can be used for simple construction projects.

The founders have already taken their approach to the capital Delhi, helping turn around an under-performing school in just six months. Their Akshar School Reform Fellowship now plans to add five more schools next year, with one ultimate goal: transforming public schools in India.