“Living Green in India” Series: Waste not, want not…

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.

What to do with all of our bottles?

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.

Waste Picker in India

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.
Do you have any more ideas or suggestions?

8 thoughts on ““Living Green in India” Series: Waste not, want not…

  1. Pingback: Living Green in India: “Trash Trail” Part I | Spinning the Green Wheel

  2. Pingback: Indian innovation – turning plastic waste into roads | Spinning the Green Wheel

  3. Pingback: Indian innovation – turning plastic waste into roads | Spinning the Green Wheel

  4. Thanks for a very interesting read Jenny. I think with many of these issues it’s so important to take the time to understand the levels of complexity (ie. addressing the waste problem but also looking after the people who will not profit from privatisation of the industry).
    Big issues like this tend to make people feel overwhelmed but I like your idea of setting some achievable goals and thereby tackling the issues bit by bit. From little things, big things grow: taking your idea of separating rubbish one step further, Japan already has rubbish bins on the street which get the consumer to sort their rubbish then and there. (disclaimer: I have no idea whether that’s just because they process their rubbish completely differently, but it seems like a step forward to me!).

    • Thanks for your comment Sonja. I completely agree – such issues are always more complex than they may seem on the surface and everything is interconnected. Another reader just emailed me about how this issue links in with the caste system, and that is a blog post in itself.

      Some countries like Japan and Switzerland, for example, are very advanced in terms of how they separate their rubbish. The closer you can do it to the consumer the better, so that certain streams of rubbish don’t become contaminated. Thanks for reading!

  5. Great post!
    When I visited India, I was struck by the way that waste is just a fact of life – I remember this moment of standing on the top floor of a hotel in Udaipur, and looking out at this beautiful, big expensive house (complete with a puppy dog and two security guards in the courtyard!). It was just immaculate, but then piled up outside its large brick fence was so much rubbish – literally huge mounds of it leaning against the entire length of some of the walls. I found it such a contrast to a place in Australia, where people would be very concerned about the aesthetic of the street they live in, and very mad at a local council that let rubbish pile up on the street….
    It’s interesting to learn from this post about how the ‘system’ works in India – you’ve certainly got your work cut out for you 🙂
    Can’t wait to

    • Thanks for stopping by Jenny!

      That is so true – it’s such a contrasting attitude to Australia. In India people seem to be very concerned with what is considered their personal space, (i.e. inside their house/complex), but it is generally a completely different story for communal space, even if it is just outside one’s house!

      I certainly have a lot more to learn about India and I know that I will never understand it completely!

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