Living Green in India: “Trash Trail” Part I

Have you ever wondered what happens to your waste once you throw it out?

Waste is an issue that has fascinated me since I arrived in India about 6 months ago. Although waste is often very visible on the streets here, I had a very limited understanding of how the waste management process worked. Although it may sound a bit odd, I was really curious to find out where my garbage was going. I guess I felt like I couldn’t take  any effective action until I had seen it for myself and understood the complexities of the situation.

Waste provides a good hiding spot for local street dog

I started doing some of my own research into the issue and a friend introduced me to a business called Daily Dump, based in Bangalore. Daily Dump sells composting equipment, and also runs a “Trash Trail” tour across the city. So I signed up and arrived at the Daily Dump office early one Saturday morning with 7 other interested citizens. The staff gave us a quick powerpoint presentation to set the scene:

I was amazed to find out that only 10% of what we currently throw out should be heading to landfill!

To make sure we understood the different types of waste, we tried to segregate some dry waste that we’d brought along – such as cardboard boxes, plastic bangles, plastic milk bags, plastic bottles. Most items were easy to sort, but some, such as cellophane and chip packets, were more of a challenge.

Lesson 1: The metallized polyester used for disposable chip and biscuit packaging (a mixed material) is not recyclable.

Packed into a minivan, we then spent the rest of the day physically tracing the progress of garbage – from household hand collection, to a local street corner, neighbourhood transfer point, wholesale market, plastic recycling plant and then to its final resting place in landfill.

Stop 1: Household collection, street sweepers, local carts

People are employed by the authorities to collect garbage bags door to door and use carts to bring all of the waste together at a street corner.

Being taught the art of 2 broom sweeping

Stop 2: Local street corner

From this street corner, an auto pickup then collects the dumped rubbish and takes it to a neighbourhood transfer point.

Worker clears garbage by hand and with no protective clothing or shoes

Stop 3: Neighbourhood transfer point

At the transfer point, a large compactor truck collects all of the garbage and takes it to one of Bangalore’s landfills.

Formal workers collecting garbage from transfer point

Stop 4: Kabbadiwalla

Throughout these initial stages of the waste collection process, both informal and formal workers attempt to salvage valuable recyclable items, as they can make some supplementary income by selling them to a Kabbadiwalla (a local trader). However, this is made much more difficult for them when the dry and wet waste are not segregated at source.

A migrant worker searches through dumped garbage for any items of value. We all donned some plastic gloves and helped him, just about blocking the street in the process, as curious passers-by stopped to see what we were doing.

Backbreaking work sorting at an informal Collection Centre

A local worker and Trash Trail participant discuss the value of different materials

These workers are very skilled and have learnt from experience to be able to distinguish different types of glass, plastic and metals. This is often done by touch, but can also be done by burning the material, hitting it on a rock or testing them with small amounts of chemicals.

Lesson 2: It is critical to recognise the unique contributions and value of everyone who is part of the waste management process (either informally or formally).

The resident dog keeps a watchful eye over proceedings.

Where does our waste go to next? Find out in Part II of this “Trash Trail” post, where we’ll explore a wholesale market, a plastic recycling factory and a landfill.


11 thoughts on “Living Green in India: “Trash Trail” Part I

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

  2. great Jenny thanks looking forward to part 2 also…..I think also the out of sight out of mind attitude is supported later in the process, in most countries its too easy (and probably not yet expensive enough) just to send it to landfill and not work to hard to recover less valuable materials…..obviously in Bangalore anything of value is appreciated.

    • Hi Mike, Thanks for your comment. I completely agree – there are most certainly different financial drivers at play which result in much higher recovery rates in India. You then start to get into the whole product stewardship question and who is responsible for the product after consumption. Stay tuned for Part II…

  3. Hi Jenny,
    Congratulations for this great post. As an engineer with a passion for environment protection who travelled to India in January (and hopefully in January 2013 again) I could only love your article. It is really well written with nice pictures which reminds me my trip (to Gujarat). I just would like to stress out that in Western countries, although waste are not visible on streets, people have no understanding of “how the waste management process worked”. It is a shame that people are not like you, “curious to find out where their garbage are going” or that they are not told how it works, at school for instance. I realized the problems of waste about 10 years ago when I first visited an incineration plant. I believe everyone should visit a waste treatment plant once in its life : this could create a change in their consumption habits and solve part of the problem. I am looking forward to part II !

    • Hi Aurélie,

      Thanks so much for your feedback – I’m glad you found it interesting 🙂 What was your experience like in India?

      You are absolutely right that in Western countries the mentality is “out of sight, out of mind”. The streets might be clean, but people are less connected to the whole process. I feel that in India there is more resourcefulness and awareness of the value of waste a “resource”. As a result, India recycles 60% of all its plastic – the highest rate in the world.

      It certainly affected me to see how my waste was dealt with and the conditions in which some people worked. As a result, I find that I am trying to be more proactive about finding was to reuse materials. I think it is a great idea to teach children more about the process and change their habits early on.

      Stay tuned for Part II and do get in touch if you make it back to India next year!

  4. Pingback: Living Green in India: “Trash Trail” Part I « B-Gina™ Sustainable Report

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