the wheel



We talk to Ramya Venkataraman about Sustainable Merton’s circular economy initiative The Wheel…

Ramya Venkataraman was so concerned about climate change that she gave up her lucrative career working as a scientist in the corporate oil and gas world so that she could become part of the solution in tackling the climate crisis.

She now works for environmental charity Sustainable Merton and helped to spearhead its waste reduction project The Wheel. The initiative includes repair cafes where people meet up to learn how to fix everything from textiles to small electricals, meaning they reduce waste, consume less and save money. She says: “It demystifies the whole repair process and gives people confidence to do these sorts of jobs. Waste reduction is the obvious benefit but we have evidence of just how beneficial for mental health and wellbeing the cafes are – participants are making friends, and working on a task like this is a very productive and mindful thing to do.” Going forward, The Wheel will be working in partnership with the council and University College of London to help smaller businesses be more resource efficient. A pilot with Morden High Street is taking place, which will include businesses using reusable bags made by the local community from unwanted textiles. Other plans include helping community venues to reuse and recycle more by connecting them with people who can repair and upcycle furniture and fabric for them.

“It is about building the infrastructure to support them. Often small businesses and community ventures have the willingness but not the resources and get left behind.” The Wheel launched in September last year and is already making a huge difference. It was estimated that repairing just 10 items at its repair café prevented 111 kg of CO2 emissions: nearly the same amount of emissions as driving more than 500 miles in a car.

There is a digital platform to help connect people, and there are impressive examples of how great things can be achieved together – in December, a group of partners and volunteers furnished grade-II listed heritage building Canons House by making upcycled soft furnishings.

Ramya, who has been a Merton resident for over eight years, has a PhD in Fuel Chemistry and worked in oil and gas for many years but she was disillusioned. “I thought that once companies saw the extent of the climate problem they would act to do more, but that wasn’t the case.” “What I read on climate change was so daunting. I thought If I could transition my skillset to a local level, I could make a tangible difference.”

She volunteered for a year with the community-led Merton Climate Action group in partnership with the council on its climate action projects, including Merton Garden Streets helping to improve biodiversity, and then worked on a project that has developed into The Wheel. “It was quite a journey going from the corporate world with all of its resources to a local environmental charity. It has been an emotional one. But one that has made me much happier knowing I can make a difference. My new role is perfect as it is part academic and part implementation. I love working with people and seeing how small actions can have a big impact when communities come together.”

Next for her will be growing The Wheel and getting more volunteers and sourcing funding and sponsorship from businesses. “We can all do our bit in our own way. For a lot of people, climate change is still seen as ‘out there’, not as something that is relevant to their lives. We have to move beyond that. All of us need to do what we can now, whether that is getting solar panels or reducing our consumption patterns.”