IS RECYCLING CLAY THE SOLUTION?: The ecological impact of materials used in the Ganesh Chaturthi festival and a comparative review of various alternatives 

By Manisha ShethonApr. 15, 2024in Environment and Ecology

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

In 2020, the Central Pollution Control Board finally revised their guidelines for the immersion of religious idols, instituting a ban on the immersion of idols made of Plaster of Paris (POP) and chemical paints into natural water bodies. This was a welcome move as several groups had been highlighting the pollution caused by these substances for a few decades. However the prohibition was only the beginning of the effort to make religious festivals, particularly the Ganesh Chaturthi festival, a totally zero waste event. The ban posed several challenges and as of today in 2024, the government has still not been able to stop the production and use of POP idols for the festival.

Also in 2020, while waiting for the Covid lockdown to be lifted, the eCoexist team started to experiment with the possibility of recycling the natural clay (shaadu maati in Marathi) that has been traditionally used for making Ganesh idols before the advent of POP. This clay comprises primarily of naturally occurring bentonite and is mined in Gujarat and West Bengal and transported to Maharashtra for use. A much more fragile medium to work with , this clay requires skill, labour and time to work with  and is not very popular among the Ganesh artisans due to the losses and damages it involves. When the ban on POP was finally declared it was expected that more and more artisans would return to the use of natural clay as it was familiar to them. 

However, natural clay is itself a non renewable resource and slowly becoming short in supply. The growing use of this clay for the Ganesh idols (a temporary and disposable item) would pose another severe ecological impact due its increased mining. 

And yet, the clay lends itself easily to reuse as it is not fired and simply sun dried for the idols to retain its ability to disintegrate in water. On inquiry, it was found that the artisans routinely reuse and recycle the clay during the production process as damages are plentiful. Simply by soaking the broken idols in clay or by crushing the dried broken idols and powdering them it was possible to reuse the clay. They expressed a willingness to reuse the clay but were not in a position to be involved in the collection of the clay idols after the festival.

Who would collect these idols to bring them back to the artisans?

This led to the birth of a new campaign called PUNARAVARTAN (meaning re creation in Sanskrit) led by the eCoexist team which appealed to worshippers to save the clay sludge after the immersion ritual and send it back to the artisans. In 2021, this appeal had a few responses and around 30kg of clay was collected and returned to the artisans to see if the idols made of reused clay would be acceptable to the market. The response from the public was very encouraging and in 2022, with the involvement of a large network of NGOS nearly 23000 kg of clay was collected to return to the artisans. (Read more about the campaign at In 2023, this network was further expanded and the campaign was launched in 8 cities across 4 states of India. 

And yet, is recycling this clay a good solution to the problem?

Prima facie, using a resource that is non renewable for a temporary application does not seem justifiable. So ideally, we should turn to other renewable biodegradable and compostable options such as cow dung or even paper mache. 

However, the change in materials use happens step by step in such an industry because of the sheer number of stakeholders involved and the impact on their livelihoods.  

See below a comparative review of the possible materials that could be used for sculpting the idols and their physical properties. 

A comparative review of materials indicates that it is most likely that artisans would return to the use of natural clay if POP was banned, as this material is most familiar to them and would not require reskilling of labour. 

In this context, the effort to collect and reuse this material after the festival seems like the obvious next step. The acceptance of the idea of recycling the clay sludge by worshippers indicates that there is a growing awareness about the ecological impacts of the festival among them. 

The large scale collection that was done in 2022 and 2023 offered lessons in the handling of the clay that involved some of the following considerations:

FRAGILITY: For some years now in the city of Pune, some artisans have been collecting the POP idols and refurbishing them for the following year offering them at a lower cost. This effort has also gained momentum and reduces the number of new POP idols required as it puts back the older idols in circulation. Clay is more prone to damage and therefore it is not as easy to collect entire idols like the POP idols. Broken idols hurt religious sentiments and there fore this is a delicate matter.

IMMERSION AND SLUDGE: This necessitates the immersion of the clay idols and conversion into sludge; a process for which water and space is required. Smaller artisans cannot afford to do this at their end and so request that the clay be processed centrally and converted into clay powder before redistribution.

QUALITY: Collecting clay directly from end users in cloth bags, it was possible to retain the cleanliness of the clay and return it almost as good as new to the artisans for reuse. However in public immersions at immersion tanks managed by the municipal corporations, the clay was mixed with a variety of other materials such as POP, red earth and cow dung. This public collection was not appropriate for reuse by artisans and other applications had to be tested. 

TRANSPORTATION: The systems of collection involved a lot of transportation from the end users and the public immersion tanks to the artisans. 

COST OF RECYCLING: The recycling process involves a cost that would ultimately need to be built into the end cost of the product or subsidised by the the government. In some states, the governments offered free clay to artisans as an incentive to stop using POP. This was a deterrent for them to accept used clay as they were getting free clay from the government. Finally, the affordability of the recycled product has to be at par with that of POP for it to be able to replace the use of POP – this is not feasible.

These challenges notwithstanding, the effort has been very well received and is now spreading to other cities as well. Each city has a unique context and the clay used may also vary. For eg. Bangalore uses a red earth which is not as clayey as the one used in Maharashtra. The campaign then would require to be adjusted as per the context it is being implemented in.

Eventually, this system of collection and recycling should be mainstreamed into the solid waste management systems of the government. The municipal corporations of Pune, Thane and Ahmedabad accepted to partner with the Punaravartan campaign and Pune collected around 5 tonnes of clay through its municipal corporation SWM teams. Further efforts, such as separate tanks for clay idols, adequate training to ground staff and clear public outreach can ensure that this figure grows. Currently the PMC is still resorting to landfill to dispose off the materials collected from the immersion tanks by sending it to neighbouring abandoned quarries. If integrated into a circular economy the recycling of this material can translate into a saving of several crores for the government.

Artisan Omkar Salunkhe in Pune who has been sculpting Ganesh idols since the age of 8 yrs old, was one of the first to agree to work on recycling the clay sludge collected after immersion. 

For the Central Pollution Control Board, the priority lies in first completely eliminating the use of toxic chemical substances first and secondly to replace the use of non renewable materials to renewable ones. They also need to redesign the entire immersion management process, and inspire worshippers to recreate new ways of approaching immersion. This could be done in conversation with religious heads and organisations to help maintain the sanctity of the ritual in peoples minds. 


The shift from a temporary idol to a permanent idol is the final and ideal change that would ensure that there is no impact through immersion whatsoever. The Hindu community has itself innovated several possible alternatives that already have sanction scripturally. 

The use of a betel nut that is kept alongside the main idol during worship which absorbs the intent of the ritual and then only the betel nut is immersed and the idol taken back again for permanent use. 

The sprinkling of water to symbolise immersion reduces the need for large bodies of water for actual immersion. 

The planting of seeds using the soil that the idol is sculpted out of. 

The Ganesh icon encourages creative liberty like no other diety and so many ingenious possibilities can be seen each year as designers used food materials such as bananas and chocolate to craft the idols out of and then distribute the food to the needy after the worship. 

This year, artisans themselves are innovating clay mixtures that possess the convenience of POP and yet are completely biodegradable. Such grassroot innovations should be financed and encouraged by the government to promote local home grown solution to a problem that has massive ecological implications. 

Recycling clay is one out of many possibilities but even better, would be the elimination of the need to dispose altogether. In the interim, circularity may encourage artisans to stop the use of Plaster of Paris for this festival. 

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Read more by the same author

WASTE THAT IS NOT WASTE : The management of solid waste generated by the Ganesh Chaturthi festival 
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