Moving beyond the mandate: How Eco-ol School is turning students into messengers for responsible waste management

When you throw your garbage away, have you wondered where ‘away’ is?

Of the 62 million tonnes of waste India generates daily, 31 million tonnes is sent to landfills, many of which are unscientific, significantly above their saturation limits and risky for health and the environment.  Estimates portend that our waste will more than triple to 376,639 tonnes per day by 2025! A veritable ocean of garbage.

From a consumer perspective, two things are at the heart of any approach to deal with this growing mountain of waste: reducing the amount of trash we generate by changing our consumption patterns and segregating our waste at source to allow for optimum resource recovery. This makes even more sense upon learning that upwards of 60 percent of our waste is organic and easily compostable at home.

However since handling, segregating and composting waste is not behaviour that most city-dwellers are familiar with, it’s one that needs learning if we are to keep up with the increasing volume and changing composition of our garbage.

Examples of successful city-wide waste management campaigns exist. Alappuzha’s decentralised solid waste management programme is well known as is Pune’s assortment of technologies that keeps its waste out of landfills. Bangalore, the poster child of urban waste management has successfully scaled up citizen initiatives like 2Bin1Bag into state-level legislations mandating 3-way segregation.

But since large scale change is dependent on fundamental shifts in citizens’ attitude to waste and on improved technology across the chain of waste management - from collection to storage and treatment, it has been rather slow.

It may be possible to bring about a more substantive shift in attitude and behaviour towards waste by integrating environmental education centred on solid waste management into the school curriculum, beginning at the elementary level. This education will have to focus not so much on the sweeping away of waste as on critically questioning the way we’re consuming, disposing and seeing our waste today. Such a curriculum is consistent with theories that experiential environmental education can give students knowledge about the natural world, create a sense of belonging to a wider natural community and develop citizenship skills, empathy and a moral obligation to turn this learning into environmental stewardship.

As early as 2007, as part of its strategy to deal with the growing problem of waste in cities, the Union Urban Development Ministry partnered with the HRD ministry to include waste management in school syllabus. The issue was raised again in 2015 when the Environment Ministry proposed it as a measure to achieve the goals of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan. But schools have yet to engage comprehensively with the subject.

In 2016, Seema Das and Padma Arun, consultants with StoneSoup, a Bangalore-based enterprise for responsible waste management, launched the Eco-ol School programme to introduce children to positive ways of managing waste. As citizen volunteers of the Bangalore Eco Team, both women have been closely involved in a growing movement for sustainable solutions to the city's garbage problem. The mess Indian cities are in, they say, is because of a characteristic resistance to handle one’s waste particularly in urban settings. We practise rituals of domestic cleanliness but have a deep disregard for the litter outside our homes.

Students and their parents discuss alternatives to disposables

Students and their parents discuss alternatives to disposables

Malini Parmar, co-founder of StoneSoup says about the programme, “The next generation of decision-makers and influencers is being educated in our classrooms. For long-term change, they need to be empowered, at the earliest, with knowledge and behaviour that makes the minimisation and proper management of waste a habit."

The Eco-ol School is centred around a 4-day waste education training titled ‘The Journey of Waste’. Based on Trashonomics, a handbook of waste education, the lessons help students think positively about waste by introducing them to different categories of waste and how each, with correct treatment, can be turned into a valuable resource.

For long-term change, children need to be empowered with knowledge and behaviour that makes the minimisation and proper management of waste a habit.

I attend the final day of a Journey of Waste workshop at Oasis International School in Bangalore. A class of third graders has their books open before them, their task for the day to summarise the learnings of the week. They exchange terms like ‘dioxins’ and ‘leachate’ with ease as they discuss the ill-effects of burning plastic and list the alternatives to single-use plastics.

Students visit a Dry Waste Collection Centre

Students visit a Dry Waste Collection Centre

“The programme also connects students to the people who handle their waste, to systems that manage it after it leaves their homes and to its impacts on the environment,” says Padma. A visit to a Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC) is part of the lesson on recycling where students experience up close the conditions that sanitation workers are exposed to while sorting through and segregating the city’s garbage. “Seeing the piles of snack packets and shiny wrappers sparked a conversation about using alternative food choices and packaging options,” she recollects. Children are more aware now of the waste around them in the form of black spots and they're more sensitive towards waste pickers and stray animals at garbage bins."

Source to Soil - a lesson on managing organic waste includes a hands-on gardening session where students learn to compost and garden. “They're amazed at how mushy waste transforms into compost that can be used to grow food. It is this element of discovery - vital to learning and connecting with the environment - that is easier for children to experience than adults,” Seema says. “Every trained student becomes an ambassador who carries the message of responsible waste management to her/his peers,” she adds.

Knowing that the impact of school waste education programmes extends beyond the child, the Eco-ol School team works closely with parents who not just help students bridge the gap between learning and action, but who, in schools such as Oasis International, have an important say in the co-curricular activities the school introduces.

Learning to compost

Learning to compost

Parents testify to an immediate positive impact on the household’s waste practices as a result of the training - children talk about what they've learnt, make sure waste is being segregated, they’re excited to start composting, and some are even ready to step it up and educate the neighbours. One parents says, “My husband has always been against the idea of handling waste to segregate it but now that our son is advising us of its benefits, he is more open to start doing it.”

My husband has always been against the idea of handling waste and segregating it but now that our son is advising us of its benefits, he is more open to start doing it.

No waste education programme can be successful unless all stakeholders are involved and the training of students is complemented by a change in the school’s waste management practices. The Eco-ol School programme has thus evolved into a modular one that includes an audit of the school’s waste management infrastructure, a consultation of best practices, implementation and stakeholder training in the new system of managing waste. “StoneSoup’s product range of composting solutions, sustainable menstrual hygiene products and cloth bags helps people put their training into practice immediately,” Padma remarks.

Seema and Padma in a session

Seema and Padma in a session

The duo hopes that waste education soon becomes part of school curriculum and that schools take up responsible waste management at the institutional level. They aim to introduce the Journey of Waste in 50-60 schools in 2017 leading up to an annual inter-school sustainability competition for students vie to develop innovative solutions to local environmental problems.

Building in children an understanding that they are part of the natural world and that their actions impact the environment, kindling in them a curiosity about nature and nurturing their sensitivity towards it may just be the precondition for responsible environmental behaviour in the future.

To introduce Eco-ol School in your school? Write to [email protected]

Maya is a social researcher by training. Her writing has appeared in YourStory and The Alternative. She is the Founding Editor of Eartha and tweets @Maya_Kilpadi.