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From Rubbish to Riches: Why India should stop wasting its waste

Every day on my shuttle to the Public Affairs Centre (PAC), I tuck my nose under the collar of my shirt a dozen or more times to escape the foul smell of rotting garbage. Even worse, I almost always see someone openly burning a pile of plastic and other household waste. As an environmentalist and public health student, I find this appalling. Burning plastic and organic material (such as wood) together reacts to emit dioxins and furans—some of the most toxic and carcinogenic compounds known. They have been proven to cause cancer, reproductive and neurological damage, impair the human immune system, and disrupt hormones. If that isn’t convincing enough, dioxins are readily stored in our bodies and can take 5-13 years for our bodies to eliminate half of the original amount ingested. For mothers, dioxin can easily transfer from the mother to the vulnerable fetus or newborn and into the baby’s breast milk, impairing critical development.

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A gutter on Neeladri Road, Electronic City

But aside from the obvious environmental and health concerns, dumping and burning trash is a waste. Organic material, such as food scraps, tea-leaves, coffee grounds, soiled paper towels, and yard waste can be composted into a rich, natural plant fertilizer for sale. Alternatively, organic waste can be fermented into biogas and sold as a clean, renewable fuel and cooking source. PET plastic bottles, polyethylene bags, and metals can be collected and recycled, reducing waste while generating income. I repeat: Trash is a waste of resources and the waste of an economic opportunity.

At my college, I am a student recycling coordinator. As part of that responsibility, I ensure that my campus (the 6th largest in the United States) has a set of segregated waste bins for every 15 people in an office. Our recycling program funds itself with the profits made from recycling materials and it provides employment for two dozen people. From my stay in India, I have learned that urban India produces over 188,500 metric tonnes of garbage every day. If recycled, that waste could be turned into a lot of money and jobs. But with a lack of proper infrastructure, only about a quarter of urban garbage is officially collected in Bangalore. The remaining waste is often dumped or burned, contaminating surrounding air, soil, and water. I cringe every time I see a gutter clogged with plastic or a stray dog drinking from unnaturally coloured, polluted water.

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A stream filled in with trash during my visit to India a year ago

A portion of India’s waste stream is labouriously sorted by “rag pickers.” Rag pickers are people and children who sort through mounds of trash looking for recyclable material to sell at the end of the day for a small profit. The innate resourcefulness of Indians never ceases to amaze me. One of my favorite Hindi words I’ve learned is “jugaad,” an innovative, makeshift solution using whatever resources are available. Yet for waste pickers, their resourceful, entrepreneurial spirit puts them at jeopardy for a variety of health hazards. Waste may be contaminated with pathogens, sharp medical needles, heavy metals, and toxic industrial waste. As part of the informal economy, one injury could prove devastating given their vulnerable financial situation. Perhaps the culturally ingrained concept of “jugaad” could be applied at city-levels instead to effectively address the lack of adequate waste recovery while generating a profit.

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A wandering cow grazing on a heap of trash

One of the challenges that Indian cities face when attempting to provide universal waste disposal is their burgeoning growth rate. In other words, cities are growing faster than services can be provided. Over the last 15 years, Bangalore’s per capita waste doubled and its population increased by more than 2.5 times. The city’s urban growth rate is a shocking 4.6%. Bangalore also spends more on its waste disposal compared to other nearby cities, yet Bangaloreans still have to live with heaps of smelly garbage. Bangalore produces 4,000 tonnes of waste per day and spends Rs 450 crore (crore is ten million) to dispose it, comparatively Hyderabad spends Rs 100 crore to remove its 3,800 daily tonnes of waste, while Chennai spends Rs 4,000 crore to dispose of 6,000 tonnes of the city’s waste.

Many Bangaloreans have expressed frustration with BBMP’s waste recovery service. Even if citizens segregate their waste, it is not always collected when it should be, leading to an unpleasant smell. Another problem with the current waste recovery system is that garbage contractors are paid by the weight of the waste they transport, which makes customer segregation against the Corporations’ interest. With so much money spent on waste removal, Bangalore Metropolitan Corporation (BBMP) has the opportunity to reduce its expenditure on waste removal, provide better waste removal, provide jobs, and include waste segregation and recycling for the environment.

The City of Pune is one case study of a positive waste recovery system. Pune recently incorporated some of the city’s poorest into the formal economy as trash collectors. The waste pickers are nearly all women from India’s lowest caste—the Dalits. The 9,000+ women go door-to-door to collect waste, making it far easier to sort than if it had been dumped. The women are part of a cooperative that provides them with uniforms and personal protective gear to minimize health risks. They make far more money doing the same work they did previously, and also safer. They gain more financial independence from their husbands—giving them a sense of empowerment.

Similar to Pune’s model, Hasiru Dala is a social enterprise that enables rag or waste pickers to have a reliable source of income in the formal economy. Located in Bangalore, Hasiru Dala collects home and office waste and sorts it, diverting 90% of it from landfills. They also coordinate with office spaces and apartment landlords to design a waste recovery system that is convenient for users and ensures maximum recovery. They even design and maintain urban gardens. Though Hasiru Dala is relatively small, it is a model that could be replicated and expanded throughout Bangalore to recover more of the City’s waste-stream.

Another Bangalore example is Citizengage, a waste management firm that collects recyclables and organic material. The organic waste is fermented to create Compressed Natural Gas (CNG), which is turned into electricity to illuminate Domlur Park, Bangalore.  In doing so, the company claims to have diverted over 780 tons of waste from landfills.  BBMP could sign contracts with more companies like Citizengage to reduce its expenditure, more effectively manage waste, and save the environment.

Another local solution is BioUrgja, a Bangalore-based start-up with an anaerobic digester that turns organic waste into clean energy. Though the initial cost of the biogas plants range from 10 to 60 lakh, the plant will yield a return on investment within three to four years—a pretty good deal considering that cities are guaranteed to generate organic material. One study estimated that if BBMP constructed a 600 tonne per day waste-to-energy plant, up to 12MW of power could be generated an hour. This would be enough to support the City’s electricity demand from a renewable source.

In Minneapolis, where I’m from, there is a city ordinance that requires all commercial and business property owners to recycle, and apartment dwellings must provide recycling options for their tenants. Based on my hometown’s approach a public-private partnership between the Municipal Corporation and contracted waste management companies could solve waste issues in Bangalore and other Indian cities. Such a partnership has the potential of increasing employment across cities, reducing unsightly and foul smelling garbage dumps (which would improve tourism), and minimizing our impact on the planet. Aside from my interest in environmental sustainability, my interest in waste recovery has increased since working on the Better Cities Index project at PAC. A “better” city is ultimately a beautiful one, free of garbage dumps and one that mimics nature’s cyclical pattern of resource consumption. I’ve only mentioned a few examples of local waste solutions, but the possibilities are endless. With technology advancements, there is even an app that pays residents to collect their waste for recycling.

So as the old saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” If BBMP comes up with a “jugaad” strategy for waste management, it could strike gold.

Brady Steigauf, a University of Minnesota undergraduate student studying Urban Studies, Public Health and Sustainability currently interning at the Public Affairs Centre to work on the Better Cities Index. 




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