As summer nears, the smell from untidy street corner waste piles becomes unbearable, the stench unmistakably that of mixed garbage putrefying in the sun, sending methane and other toxic chemicals into the air. For miles around landfill sites, even inhaling mildly induces deep, involuntary retching.
Unsegregated waste is shorthand for environmental catastrophe, setting off a groundswell of citizens’ movements for better waste management systems across India. “When I moved to Bangalore in 2010, talk of effective waste management was just gaining momentum,” says Nupur Tandon, who began as a citizen volunteer for waste management before delving full time into its murky depths.
“Volunteering gave me an opportunity to see, up close, how waste was being managed on the ground. It also opened my eyes to the opacity in the framing and implementation of solid waste management policies,” she says. In 2013, Nupur started Pro Waste Concepts - a for-profit social enterprise to address waste management in a structured, decentralised manner with eco-friendly, financially viable and sustainable alternatives.
The target of her efforts are commercial bulk waste generators: public entities that produce more than 10 kgs of municipal solid waste per day. Commercial bulk generators include factories, shopping malls, places of worship, institutions and offices which account for 30-40 percent of a city’s total waste. As early as 2012, the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP) mandated that all commercial bulk waste generators are duty bound to segregate waste on site and either manage it independently or through approved vendors to ensure its scientific collection, transport and processing. This is because it is possible with some initial effort, for bulk generators to prevent their waste from mixing with the rest of the city's.
Clinching Pro Waste’s first project in 2013, however, Nupur found that much was lost between policy and on-ground implementation. “There is a significant knowledge gap among bulk generators about managing waste at a large scale. Often, in the name of waste management, the focus remains merely on ridding the campus of waste,” she says. Many institutions use empanelled vendors to clear their premises of waste, most of which is unsegregated. The result? Nobody knows how much waste is generated, where it goes or what happens to it once it leaves the building.
Besides being large producers of waste, commercial bulk generators also see a high footfall; tens of thousands of people who can be addressed with targeted waste education programmes. “Having access to a large community that can be addressed collectively allows us to manage a very large amount of waste, put self-sustaining systems in place and have a large scope of impact,” Nupur adds.
Pro Waste’s work is guided by its vision for a future without landfills. So, focusing on waste reduction, by say, replacing plastic cups with stainless steel ones, is as much a part of its philosophy as offering customised, scientific waste management solutions right from waste segregation at source to recycling and safe disposal of all categories of waste.
On entering a client’s premises, first a detailed audit is done of the campus and its waste management systems and processes. Then the missing infrastructure such as colour-coded bins for waste segregation and composting units or biogas plants are set up. Processes are then defined for the collection, transportation and management of different categories of waste from various departments. Appropriate vendors are empaneled to ensure the waste is properly dealt with right up to the disposal stage.
The company works closely with the client’s housekeeping team, training them to handle waste safely and educating them about the value of each waste type. In the case of commercial bulk generators, much rests upon the vision and commitment of the management whose will trickles down through the rest of the organisation, Nupur says, adding, “Which is why awareness-building, education and training of all stakeholders - from the students and staff to the senior management in the new ways of managing waste - are important to change their attitude to waste and keep the systems functioning for the long term in auto-pilot,” Nupur informs.
Every category of waste, whether it is organic, recyclable, sanitary or e-waste can be properly managed with on-site infrastructure such as biogas plants or composting units and by making sure it reaches the right handlers. “At Pro Waste, our aim is to set up on-the-ground processes and SOPs to make campuses zero-waste,” Nupur says. This does not meaning sweeping waste away to render campuses clean, she explains, but to facilitate maximum resource recovery from the above categories. A very small amount of waste that may be mixed then goes to the landfill.
To date, Pro Waste has worked with 7 large public and private institutions including IIT Gandhinagar, Central Power Research Institute (CPRI, Bangalore), Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (Bangalore), Madras Engineering Group (MEG, Bangalore), and others, kept over 3.5 tonnes of waste out of landfills per day and educated thousands on rethinking waste by segregating it at source and managing it properly with the right systems.
With plenty of funds at their disposal, many institutions incur huge monthly expenses on vendors to collect and manage their waste, forgoing all valuable recyclables and fermentables. Engaging Pro Waste, Nupur says, has helped clients not just reduce their spending on waste collection, but also earn from the sale of recyclables, the revenue from which is distributed among housekeeping staff or used for their welfare.
“It is important that people understand that having waste removed from their premises doesn’t make it any less of an environmental problem.”
While the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has been effective in bringing the conversation of waste to the mainstream, its focus on cleanliness alone is untenable. There is a lot to be done to move the focus from brushing trash away or burning it to understanding it better, changing people’s consumption and disposal habits and instilling a sense of civic consciousness in them. “It is important that people understand that having waste removed from their premises doesn’t make it any less of an environmental problem. Managing waste effectively must become a priority,” Nupur advises.
Solving India's garbage problem requires large-scale social, political and economic transformation. That’s a formidable ask. But, given its magnitude in large Indian cities, there's an urgent need for a fundamental shift in how we see and manage our waste - it's no longer about keeping the rubbish piles out of your backyard or mine. It’s time to wake up and smell the decay, take responsibility for our trash and demand better, sustainable, more decentralised waste management systems.