Race Against Rubbish: Can A Board Game Help Solve India's Garbage Crisis?

Early this year, Fields of View, a policymaking and research organisation developed Rubbish!, a multilingual board game that simulates a city's waste ecosystem to address the importance of source segregation in managing a city's garbage. What are the challenges waste workers face in dealing with mixed waste? If not landfills, then what? - are some questions players of Rubbish! encounter.

A recent report estimated that unless its current waste management system is overhauled, India will need a landfill the size of Bengaluru by 2030. Not farfetched considering we now generate 52 million tonnes of waste a year - a figure only expected to double by 2025! Of this, 31 million tonnes of mixed waste is dumped in landfill sites which are already running at full capacity and posing greater and greater risks to health and environment.

Key to improved solid waste management is a decentralised approach that makes local institutions, households and the informal sector part of the solution. One that mandates segregation at source so that waste can be diverted from landfills or retrieved as valuable resources. In India, where over 50 percent of urban solid waste is organic and a substantial part of the rest recyclable, landfilling as a means of waste disposal should be reserved only for reject and non-recyclable waste.

A woman looks for recyclable items at a landfill on the outskirts of Guwahati Image: Flickr CC/  Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

A woman looks for recyclable items at a landfill on the outskirts of Guwahati Image: Flickr CC/ Jordi Bernabeu Farrús

In this interview, Sruthi Krishnan, Co-founder of Fields of View talks about Rubbish! and explains how it is bridging the gaps in people's understanding of their city's waste management system and changing their behaviour towards garbage.

Tell me a little bit about how Fields of View is applying gamification to the sustainability sector.

Gamification commonly refers to adding a wrapper of an incentive around a particular issue. For instance, if you want people to carpool, you tell them that they will get points if they do so - you gamify the issue. What happens here are two things: there's short-term interest which people lose in the long-term; and second, the behaviour in the game is artificial - once you go outside the game zone, you revert to your original behaviour.

Fields of View's games simulate a real-world system. In playing the game, you bring yourself, your preferences and biases into the game. The actions are what you would perform outside of the game too, which paves the way for experiential learning, or learning in the game that can be transferred outside of the game too. When it comes to issues of sustainability, we model the real-world system at hand, and let the players play with the system. They face real-world constraints, and the decisions they take allow them to experience the consequences of what would happen in the real-world. The games do not have artificial incentives, which according to our game design philosophy do not help translate learning from the game world to real world.

How did the idea for Rubbish! come about?

At Fields of View, we first undertake research to see whether a game or a simulation can help, and how before we design it. Before designing Rubbish! too, we undertook research, during the course of which we identified the problem in dry waste management that a game like it could help address. In short, on-the-ground research lets us know whether a game is useful or not. It is only in some cases that a game is useful, and we need to be careful about where we use it.

What specific challenges do players encounter in the game?

In the game, the players play the role of a Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC) Manager. Every round the city generates waste. Players have to trade in dry waste, make a profit, and create DWCCs in all wards in the city. The game board has a stylised map of the city with 18 wards. Any waste not collected by the centres goes to the landfill. If the players manage to create a dry waste centre in every ward, they all win the game. In the meanwhile, if the landfill gets full, the game stops.


"If the players manage to create a dry waste centre in every ward, they all win the game. In the meanwhile, if the landfill gets full, the game stops."


What gaps in the existing waste management infrastructure does it address?

Bengaluru moved to a decentralised system of waste management in 2012. As part of operationalising this system, DWCCs were to be created in every ward. What was interesting about some DWCCs is that people who were originally from the informal sector have now become managers of DWCCs, and their role is both that of a social worker who is working for the betterment of the environment, and an entrepreneur. Many DWCCs were not making a profit because most producers of waste (both individual and bulk) were unaware about the decentralised system, and they did not understand what role they played. Rubbish! was designed for producers of waste - both individual and bulk to learn about the complexities of the decentralised system, the tug-of-war between environment and economics, and how segregation is important for the success of such a system.

Bengaluru's  pourakarmikas  (municipal sanitary workers) play a game of Rubbish!

Bengaluru's pourakarmikas (municipal sanitary workers) play a game of Rubbish!

How does Rubbish! help people look at real world garbage problems?

While playing Rubbish! producers of waste (both individual and bulk), who are at the beginning of the waste chain, play the role of a DWCC manager, who is in the middle of the supply chain. As Rubbish! is modelled based on real data on dry waste collection centres in Bengaluru, players engage with the realities, constraints and challenges of what it takes to run such centres and deal in waste. The is a landfill in the game makes players realise how their actions in the real world affect someone who is in the middle of the supply chain. After playing Rubbish!, people have a deeper understanding of the complexities of managing waste, and they speak about how crucial segregation is to the success of the system. They also learn that any dry waste that gets recycled does not go into the landfill, and the DWCCs act as centres to collect waste for recycling - without any preaching or messaging in the game.

What do we know about the state of our landfills today and the problems associated with them?

There is something called a scientific landfill, but what we have in Indian cities are huge hills of waste, not landfills. Such hills of waste lead to leachate leaking into the groundwater, causing pollution, and make the surrounding villages inhabitable, with the stench and unsanitary conditions they breed. Such hills of waste pockmarking our cities is unsustainable. As waste to energy does not seem a viable options for Indian cities in the near future, given the composition of the waste generated, a decentralised system of waste management, with the informal sector at the heart of it, is the most viable option.

How has the game played out so far in terms of impacts on people's behaviour?

In the game sessions, we observe certain behaviour - initially people are more bothered about profits, and not about the landfill, mirroring the behaviour of city councils. Once the landfill is close to being filled, people start paying attention to it. In addition, there is a 'chance card' that allows players to invest in awareness programmes on segregation to convert unsegregated waste in their ward into segregated waste, which all players love. During the debrief, participants speak about how they did not pay attention to the landfill, and how they have to right from the beginning. They also speak about the importance of segregation to the success of the system. Rubbish! is designed as a learning game - participants learn about the complexities of the real-world system of waste. This experiential learning leads to self-reflection. The game does not have artificial incentives, which according to our game design philosophy does not help translate learning from the game world to real world.

Rubbish! is specific to Bengaluru in its language and the decentralised waste management structure it portrays. What plans for expanding to other cities and platforms?

The underlying game framework of Rubbish! can be easily adapted to any city as long as we have data for that city. Based on the availability of data, we are modifying Rubbish! for use by different cities. We have played Rubbish! with players in Delhi and Chennai, and the learning experience has been the same. Rubbish! was designed as a board game because the learning depends on the interaction between the players, and therefore, a digital version of Rubbish! would not make design sense.

Are there any plans to take the game to schools?

We are in the process of creating an off-the-shelf version of Rubbish! and have had interest from some schools for the game to be used in classroom settings.

Images courtesy fieldsofview.in

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