“Be the change you want to see in this world”

These words of bapu has remained one of the widely used quotes in the world of social service and I have personally used this in each of my awareness sessions on waste management since ages. With regards to clean/ green India, this quote has been more of a cliche statement, serving its purpose merely on paper and speeches as we could still see untreated sewage being let off into our water bodies, people throwing garbage onto the street corners, urination and open defecation in public places and much more. But as taxpaying citizens, we still want India to be clean and green just like US and western countries but we don’t want to be the one to make that change happen. We could still see politicians taking their brooms and hitting the streets to clean the already cleaned streets just for photo-op in the name of “Swachh bharat abhiyan”, yet another over-used and -advertised word in the recent few years with less meaningful work happening on the ground. This time-tested photo-op strategy would again play out on the streets of various parts of India on the eve of Gandhi Jayanthi, ironically on the birthday of a man who would’ve believed very little in photo-op and advertisement strategies and more focus on co-coordinating real action on the ground.

A friend of mine who was visiting India recently after working in the US for 10 years felt bad about the over-flowing street garbage bins and the stagnant status-quo of waste management in India. He ended his long-boring speech about the sorry state of waste management in our country in a pessimistic tone, further drawing comparison with US and European countries. As he boasted on, I could imagine him to be a westerner degrading my country just like the countless Hollywood movies which have projected Dharavi slums, poor peasants, barren agricultural lands and traffic laden narrow streets to be the face of India in their movies. I would have the same opinion just like my friend, if not for my experience in running a waste management business in Chennai for the last 3 years. I decided to explain him few things so that he can understand that the problem of waste management isn’t only confined to India and why developed countries like US and Europe should also be worried about its future on waste management.

All these years, the rich US and European countries thought it was cheaper to put all their trash on a ship and send to foreign countries like china to be taken care of, rather than putting efforts on processing the waste on their own. During that time, China, as a developing country, thought of recycling world’s trash as an opportunity to keep its growing population engaged with work. But with the growth in trade, China’s economy has improved a lot all these years, that it doesn’t want to be the world’s dump yard anymore and so has put a ban on the import of foreign waste starting this year. This “not in my backyard (NIMBY) syndrome” of western countries has put their waste management sectors in a fix as they are ill prepared to deal with the waste on their own. To put things in perspective, consider this data; during 1988 to 2016, the world’s richest countries such as US, Japan, Germany, UK, France, Germany and Canada contributed 75% (170 million metric tonne) of the world’s plastic waste exports to other countries, out of which almost 45 to 50 percentage was imported by China for further processing. So now all these countries have to recycle so much quantity of this trash on their own and since they don’t have the appropriate facilities for processing it, they have either started to send it to their own landfills or incineration.

Does that mean that these countries have not done enough in terms of waste management just like ours? The answer is no, it’s just that they don’t have enough facility for recycling which is only a part of the problem. What these countries have done better than ours is that they have put a robust system and policies in place to ensure that the waste is segregated at source, collected by the local corporation or private agencies, sorted further at the recovery facility to be taken for further processing, which are some of the challenging steps in the waste management process. They also have an effective system of pay for waste disposal model in place for the customers so that the onus rests on the waste generator rather than the processor.

Another country which is considered to be a pioneer in waste management in the recent years is Sweden, which processes 99 percent of their domestic waste and at a point of time had to import waste from other countries as they started running short of garbage to keep their plants running. The dark truth behind the country’s success is attributed towards its notion to consider incineration (waste to energy technology) as recycling which is not so. According to EPA estimates, incineration is found to release 1.3 times more CO2 than coal-burning and also many other toxins such as dioxins. These plants in Sweden are so costly to build and maintain that keeping it idle for a short time could affect its viability and hence they have to find garbage domestically or get it elsewhere to keep these plants running. Fail to do this, they could lose a lot of money and that explains why Sweden imports garbage from other countries. Sweden sends a whopping 50% percent of their waste for incineration leaving them very little for recycling, it lags behind a lot of other countries in recycling and that’s a statistic that they wouldn’t feel great about.

So the lesson for each one of us is to check the facts before we jump to any conclusion and that the problem is universal and not restricted to India only. As Indians, we have a long way to go in changing the face of waste management in India and how to get there will require the herculean effort of government agencies, private organizations, NGOs, Companies (CSR) and citizens working in tandem. Like other developed countries, the people in India also suffer from the “not in my backyard” syndrome and leave the waste to be taken care by the local municipal bodies. There is complete lack of at-source segregation and management of solid waste, but surprisingly India’s recycling rate stands strong at 56% for all recyclables and 70% for used plastics. This is mainly due to the efforts of the rag-pickers, a critical part of the invisible informal sector, who work under hazardous conditions in landfills and street garbage bins to sort through the unsegregated waste (wet+dry+sanitary wastes) and salvage whatever is possible of value for recycling.

The greatest irony is we want our country to be on par with countries like US or Japan but don’t want to emulate the action of their citizens who segregate judiciously, pay for waste disposal or recycling and question government’s environmental policies. We don’t even want to get down from our vehicles when throwing the plastic covers laden with mixed waste in the garbage bins and sometimes even throw it outside the bin for the workers to pick it up with bare hands to be thrown into the bin. We are so cost conscious that we want to be paid the maximum for our dry waste, irrespective of the value they possess. I have witnessed customers bargaining with registered private companies to pay Rs.1 to 2 per kg higher than the normal kabadiwallahs and still they want everything to be recycled, including the low value recyclables. The need of hour is a change in the Indian mindset that paying for waste management services, like that in the developed countries, is very vital to the success of having an efficient waste management system here. This is  very much evident in the lack of major private players in the waste management space as they find it difficult to earn as much profits like their foreign counterparts and hence couldn’t scale up to serve on a much larger geographical scale. This lack of a formal business system and major private players, in turn, lead to greater impact on the local markets when government policies or global markets change like the drop in crude oil prices 2 years back (lead to a decrease in the price of used plastics), Note-ban, Demonetization and waste ban by China recently. The workers at the lowest levels of waste management stream are hit the greatest due to these changes with decreased or unpaid daily wages and no work.

We blame so much about the government’s insensitivity towards the waste management crisis but none of us want to believe that we are also the reason for this crisis and our active participation and awareness about day-to-day happenings in the waste management world, including the government policies, could help a long way in solving this cancerous crisis. Reverting to Gandhi’s quote about change, he wasn’t talking only about our attitude towards the external uncleanliness but also meant about the cleanliness of our inner soul/ mind so that we realize ourselves as a part of this problem and act responsibly as an individual and a citizen to do our bit towards solving this. “Everyone is his own scavenger”, said Gandhi reiterating the fact that each and everyone is responsible for their generated waste and should ensure that others don’t suffer due to it. There is also a message for the western countries to stop sending the waste to other countries for processing and also for the rich people residing in urban cities in India, dumping their wastes into the rural landfills with economically poor people residing nearby. Through his writings and personal life, Gandhiji was very keen to eradicate the unclean image attached to India by westerners and wanted to stop them from preaching us about cleanliness. Now it is up to each and every one of us to not only just keep preaching on the teachings of Gandhi but also act on them.

To end with, segregate and dispose your waste in a responsible manner and show some respect for the people who clean the waste for us. Also remember to act in real, the change that you want to see than just merely dictating in words.

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