New Delhi: There’s a hum of activity arising from the building, in a tiny lane in Madanpur-Khadar, an urban village in south-east Delhi. Inside, local women are sitting sorting through what seem like mountains of clothes. Working areas are demarcated with signs that say “Kids", “Women", “Men", “Material". There are cartons lined up against the wall with more signs, including one that says “Wedding Clothes". The latter is overflowing with bright red dupattas, a brocade blouse or two, even a groom’s pagdi (turban).

This is the facility run by Goonj, a non-governmental organization (NGO) established in 1999 that works on issues of urban waste and social distribution. Goonj encourages urban India to donate clothes, toys, utensils and stationery, and tries to distribute these to people, especially in rural areas, who are in need of them.

“Every year, we ask people to come forward and give us everything that they have not used. From families to companies to schools and colleges, we reach out to everyone," says Meenakshi Gupta, co-founder of Goonj. Though they have different drop-off points, usually the homes of volunteers, Goonj encourages people to visit its facility so that they know what happens to their donations.

For, it is here at the facility that the real magic unfolds. Clothes are sorted out by employees most of whom are local village women and have been with Goonj for some time now. Baby Mishra is sorting through mounds of children’s clothing. “I look at every piece of clothing, see the condition it is in, and then put it in a box accordingly," she says, smoothening out a blue and white striped flannel pyjama. There are 9-10 women in the two rooms of the facility and each is working on one specific type of garment that is further sorted into different categories depending on its condition. “Once the sorting and processing is done, the clothes are packed into gunny bags that are coded," says Amrita Patil, a volunteer with Goonj. A printout pasted on the wall of the store room gives the coding method. M1 is for men’s shirts and T-shirts; M2 is for men’s trousers and shorts, and so on. Women’s clothing is coded with the letter F.

Goonj does not donate the clothes, but seeks to make it available to those in rural areas in a dignified manner. “We call it the cloth-for-work initiative," says Gupta. This involves connecting with grass-root organizations working in rural areas and providing clothes to the poor and needy in exchange for work. “We seek their participation in community projects like digging wells, building bamboo bridges, etc. in exchange for which clothes are given," says Patil.

In the clothes sorting facility, packaged boxes marked wedding kits are stacked against the wall and Gupta explains that apart from clothes, these also contain utensils and other things that a new household might require. “Goonj is equated with clothes, but we also have use for other things. This could be toys, umbrellas, newspapers, old spectacles, flex banners…anything," she says.

The organization even encourages school children to donate used pens and pencils. The donated toys make their way to aanganwadis or government sponsored child- and mother-care centres.

Yet, it is in scraps of cloth that can’t be used for anything else that Goonj’s biggest success story lies. Not Just A Piece of Cloth is an initiative the NGO launched in 2005 that makes sanitary pads for women from discarded cotton cloth. Cloth from discarded clothes, bed sheets and other items, which cannot be reused, is salvaged, soaked overnight in detergent, washed, sanitized and then dried in the sun. The covering of the sanitary napkin is a cloth that is 12 inches wide and 16 inches long, which is then stuffed with scraps of leftover material. Three packs, each containing five such sanitary pads, are packed into a colourful cloth bag that has a stamp of “My Pad".

“Women in rural areas tend to use anything, from grass to ash, during their monthly cycle. We reach out to them through our partner groups and use these as a way of opening the conversation about hygiene and reproductive health. We tell them how to store it, how to wash it and even how to dispose it," says Gupta.

There are other uses for scrap cloth too.

Patil proudly shows off a laptop bag made out of discarded car covers. Audio-tape reels are woven into wallets and even an iPad cover. “Nothing goes to waste, everything is used," the young volunteer says with a satisfied smile. With a presence in nine cities, Goonj is now focused on collections for the harsh winter months. “We end up buying as we usually don’t get many sweaters," says Patil. There have, however, been instances of exporters giving Goonj surplus sweaters.

Goonj, which was awarded the Deutsche Bank Urban Age Award 2014 along with Chintan Material Recovery Facility, believes in focusing on the receiver’s dignity as opposed to the giver’s need. Gupta minces no words when she says that when people give away clothes and toys and other things, they are not donating, but discarding. “We have to look at the whole practice realistically. Consumption has increased, but our living spaces have shrunk. You buy more, but have no place to keep them. So, it is a need for you to clear out your home. Every woman has saris, for instance, but they rarely get worn now except on occasions. In rural areas, however, it still remains the garment of choice. Instead of jeans, we encourage women to drop off saris which are lying with them, as they will find grateful recipients," she points out.

But don’t treat Goonj as a garbage disposal unit, Gupta warns. Volunteers at the NGO have seen all sorts of things coming in—empty shampoo bottles, expired medicines, and used undergarments—and say they’d like people to think about what they are sending to Goonj.