Starting from today (aptly World Environment Day), I will be running the “Living Green in India” series, where I will share some of the unique challenges of living in an environmentally friendly way in India.
Recently something curious happened at home in our Indian apartment. We had stored all of our used glass and plastic bottles on our balcony, not really sure of what to do with them (given the lack of accessible government recycling facilities). Our housemaid gathered up all of the bottles and then, just as she was leaving, asked me for a letter. Initially I was unsure as to why she needed it, but I realised that she wanted a note from us stating that we had given her the bottles (to prove to security at our complex that she hadn’t stolen them). Clearly the bottles were valuable and she could get some money from selling them.
This situation got me thinking about the whole waste management and recycling sector in India. To me, at least, India feels like a country slowly splitting at the seams. Waste is definitely much more visible and hard to ignore than back home in Australia. In Australia you put out your rubbish bins and just forget about it…blissfully unaware of where it goes or what happens to it! I guess at least in India I am more aware of its presence and that challenges me to recycle and minimise my waste where possible.
Garbage collection in India is generally done by hand by individuals walking from door to door collecting the waste. The term “waste pickers” is used as a broad term to describe people who reclaim “reusable and recyclable materials from what others have cast aside as waste”. This includes picking it up from the doorstop of someone’s home, to the street and finally to landfill or dump sites (see thiswebsitefor more detailed descriptions).
“These waste pickers contribute enormously to their local communities and reduce the waste management costs for municipal authorities, however they often face low social status, deplorable living and working conditions, and little support or recognition from local governments.“
Increasingly, Indian state and local governments are moving to clean up their cities by privatising the waste management industry. Although on the surface cleaning up polluted cities such as Delhi and Mumbai sounds like a positive step, it also means that individual waste collectors can be blocked from accessing streams of waste and, as they have limited employment options, they have difficulty making an income.
A number of local and international NGOs are working to assist the waste pickers. One such organisation, CHF International (with help from the Caterpillar and Gates Foundations), is providing waste pickers in Bangalore with access to safe and hygienic separating facilities, proper equipment and clothing and education on health and safety. Additionally, waste pickers are also mobilising nationally into groups such as the Alliance for Indian Waste Pickers (AIW) and internationally the Global Alliance of Waste Pickers is making their presence felt at UN climate conferences. There are also increasing opportunities in the private sector, as some companies, such as Tetra Pak and Coca Cola, are involving waste pickers in their waste recovery and recycling work.
So nothing is quite as straightforward as it might seem and there are significant social, environmental and economic drivers at play. (This video provides an interesting overview of the challenges).
As long as India has a burgeoning middle class and increasing consumption, the waste management problem is not going to go away and waste management strategies must raise awareness among the population of the benefits of recycling. Fundamentally, the challenge is to develop inclusive models of waste management that effectively deliver environmental outcomes, while also improving the working conditions and lives for waste pickers, some of India’s most vulnerable and overlooked workers.
I’m going to “act locally” and set myself some challenges for reducing my waste:
- Challenge #1 – Reduce the amount of bottled water that I use, so as to reduce how many plastic bottles we have to dispose of in the first place. We use filtered water at home, but I have to be stricter about taking a bottle of water out with me during the day, rather than buying bottled water.
- Challenge #2 – Buy more basic staple items in bulk to reduce the amount of packaging we need to dispose of.
- Challenge #3 – Separate our waste into wet, dry, recyclable and organic, so that when collected it can be more effectively recycled and processed.