Only two human-made structures on Earth are large enough to be seen from outer space: the Great Wall of China and the Fresh Kills landfill in USA. Startling, and not a very pleasant fact to know!
Bengaluru generates about 3,500 tons of municipal solid waste daily, and the municipality allocation for its disposal is Rs. 160 crores (in 2011) for its disposal. So much money only to collect, transport and dump waste! And if the method of disposal is about creating landfills in the periphery of the city by taking over villages, the city can only grow and expand into dumps.
However, there is a silent force working to make their livelihood by salvaging all from being “wasted away”. Waste moves unseen by us through many hands. One has to see it, to believe the way these heroes Heroes manage “resources”. At Daily Dump, over the past few years we have tried to understand the various aspects of waste in the city of Bengaluru. It has opened up many little stories about the people who do the job that many would shy from - stories of entrepreneurship, of the attitudes of the public and the state towards them. We realized the gaping disconnect between one section of the society comprising the producers and consumers and the community that ensures appropriate disposal of the former’s trash. We, at Daily Dump, have come to believe that as people know more, see more and, experience more of the complete story, they may be prompted to view the issue through a new lens - that waste is not so much about the object as it is about the act. This is why we started the ‘Trash Trail’.
Have you often wondered what you could do to clean up the city, lower your carbon footprint, be a part of the “recycling” movement – and then wondered if it all really helps? It may help to begin by knowing what really happens to your trash as it drops from your hands.
Following your trash
If it is made of glass, metal, paper or plastic, there will be attempts at all levels of collection of the “trash”, to recover it and reach it to the recycling industry. The formal sector (the people hired directly by the municipality or indirectly through contractors) gets to it first. What they don’t collect will be claimed by the ragpickers. Both of them sell it to the neighbourhood kabaadiwala (also known as scrap trader) and make some money out of it. Nearly 30% of the city’s daily waste is collected and processed for recycling through such informal means.
At the next stage, the local raddiwala will sell his ware to a wholesaler who has the resources to aggregate these materials. Skilled workers in the wholesale market sort these minutely by type and colour in order to meet the rigid requirements of the mechanical recycling processes and to be able to demand a better price from the recycler. The complexity and variety of the products they deal with is baffling - it takes at least two years of intensive training and experience to be able to fit the cap of a toothpaste tube into a finely segregated slot different from a mineral water bottle cap slot. It is a vibrant, self- reliant industry guarded by community ties, influenced like any other market by fluctuations in world commodity prices and highly organized in its operations.
The aggregated materials next reach the recycling and reprocessing units. This sector in India attracts and supports a large chunk of the urban poor, in the bargain also delivering low labour costs for recycling compared to other developed countries. Although the level of technology employed is apparently primitive, innovative ideas are quickly replicated and bettered. India boasts of one of the highest plastic recycling rates in the world. Given the resource constraints and the highly hazardous nature of some of the materials recycled, the working conditions are not much to talk about. Recycling and reprocessing result in newer products of lower quality at prices low enough to suit low income groups and rural populations. It makes one rethink the value of what is thrown away.!
Knowing the gaps
With such a robust recovery system in place and thriving, why then do we still find waste dumped in plots lying vacant in a residential area? Why do we find small shop owners burning their trash in the stealth of the night or using drainage canals for this purpose? Why does the scrap trader buy newspapers from us but refuse certain plastics?
These seemingly disparate situations are in a way connected - there are gaps due to political, financial and social factors.
For instance, Kabaadiwalas, in general, lack large enough shop spaces to store high volume and low value items. Second, and more important, they lack acceptance as service providers and therefore access to materials in gated residential communities or even entry into restrictive confines of corporate offices.
The government lacks the funds for ensuring collection from the entire population including small businesses and poorer sections of the society.
If the government’s policy and civil society acknowledged the informal sector’s contribution in reducing the burden of uncollected waste, at least two things may happen:
the Government’s approach could change from collection of waste for the purpose of disposal to one of managing resources, thereby reducing pressure on the environment, and
the opportunities for and the “status” of the waste workers could improve.
The gaps are also on account of the attitude of the public, which is more difficult to change. For instance, recycling requires that recyclable items like milk packets be cleaned and stored at home till there is sufficient volume for the scrap trader to buy it. Similarly, composting at source can ensure that inorganic recyclable materials reach in a clean state for recycling.
At another level, if information about products is shared transparently with consumers, they could make more informed choices about what they buy and use – essentially take into account the hidden impacts of the product during manufacture, during use and during disposal.
If there were ways to demand Extended Producers’ Responsibility, the producers could be asked to invest in recycling of their products. A Collaboration with the recycling units could not only lead to better recovery of materials and higher incomes, it would also ensure that only materials that may be recycled safely are introduced.
Knowing the linkages
The first step is to be aware, to see that consumption patterns, cultural values, poverty, waste work, resources, livelihoods and the environment are all interconnected. Trash Trail is an attempt by Daily Dump to know how by changing the way we throw, we set in motion a virtuous cycle that impacts, in a positive way, our fellow beings and our environment. Interested!?
Trash Trail is a monthly event. To participate, please send an e-mail to email@example.com.