We live in an increasingly consumerist society, and our days are filled by various small purchases and buying decisions — a new pair of shoes; a home delivered meal on a stressful day. These help to make our lives a little more colourful, or perhaps, a little easier. But it’s also these little things that add up — and fill our ever increasing landfills.
Plastics have been universally reviled as one of the scourges of our time, a result of our increasingly consumerist lifestyles, and the recognition of their toxicity when left to degrade in the environment has now been overstated. Yet we continue to manufacture virgin plastic, derived from crude oil mined from the earth, and we continue to dump single use and other end of life plastic products into our landfills, fields, and water bodies, including 8 million tonnes a year into our oceans! The increasing need to recycle plastics is also being recognized however, and global recycling rates have steadily increased over the last few decades.
At Kabadiwalla Connect we are looking to integrate design into the waste management system. The products we hope to come up with will be aimed at bringing about a change in behaviour.
Segregation is usually not incorporated in the work-flow of a household due to various reasons.
“No provision in the housing complex”, “Never felt the need to segregate.”, “It is a time consuming process.”, “No mandatory requirement”, “No space in the house.”, “I believe it to be unhygienic and messy.” These are just some of the common reasons we hear everyday as to why people are not inclined to segregate their waste. Segregation should become a habit. We believe that this problem can be solved through design. Daily habits are powerful. In fact, daily habits are the most powerful of all behaviors.
Pavithra Venkatagopalan, a micro-biologist by training and ‘trash enthusiast’, is a typical Chennaivaasi. She went abroad to study and after graduating, returned to her beloved Chennai. Hit with the stark contrast between our nations' waste management, she found herself constantly complaining about the mounting trash strewn all over the city, and the general lack of discipline and futility of trying to ‘civilize’ people.
In our second Discussions Series session, we were introduced to Mr Sridhar Rao Chaganti whose history of composting attempts made for a fascinating story. Everybody’s attention was nabbed and he invited us all home to see his composting system. We decided to make it our next Discussion Series session.
Last year, at Kabadiwalla Connect, the Neighbourhood Champions campaign saw the most traction as part of our advocacy work. The idea behind the campaign was to celebrate local recycling, encouraging more people with stories to come forward and motivate a larger audience to participate. The campaign was successful in discovering a network of hidden waste warriors in Chennai, who now work closely with us and are a part of a completely community run knowledge dissemination network.
This year, we have launched Kabadiwalla Connect’s Discussion Series - fortnightly talks with community members to educate them on segregation, composting and recycling, and furthermore to start a conversation on longer term waste solutions for the city.
So, we're coming to the close of this fantastic year! But before we close, we would like to reflect upon all that we've achieved this year, and thank all of you who helped us get there.
We mapped roughly 650 Kabadiwallas in three zones, and gained invaluable insight into the ecosystem. These insights have shaped our work and defined our strategies going forward.
Dear Chennai, It's been the most testing week you have seen in a century, but you have shown extraordinary resolve in handling yourselves as well as selflessly lending support to the most desperate. We hope everybody is okay and that those of you who were badly affected, are slowly able to start rehabilitating yourselves after convalescence.
This piece is a discussion on the kind of research that goes into creating products from waste, through the process of Upcycling.
What is upcycling?
It has been well established that the current linear system of ‘take-make-dispose’ economy is not only generating enormous volumes of waste, but is also depleting natural resources at an alarming rate. The apparent solution to this issue is to Reduce-Reuse and Recycle (3Rs). However, when products are designed to last only for a short span of time, it is very difficult to reduce consumption.
Community leaders are the actual heroes – the movers and shakers of decentralised waste management. It is virtually impossible for a single entity (the Corporation of Chennai for example) to successfully bring about a reduction in the overall waste generation, without addressing the issue at a micro level. During the early stages of our campaigns, we envisioned our Neighbourhood Champions as the community representatives who would drive this micro level change. But before trying to create new leaders, we first decided to seek out the few motivated individuals who have already been tirelessly striving to change their neighbourhoods.
Managing organic waste has always been one of the biggest obstacles to reducing the frightening mountains of waste going into landfills every day.
With the staggering quantities of food consumed daily by Chennai’s 8.6 million, organic waste is by far the largest contributor - over 45%. When compared with recyclable waste, the percentage of organic waste that is being kept out of landfills is sadly, negligible. Slowly, people are waking up to the illuminating fact that managing recyclable waste is relatively easy! All it involves is segregation and storage and it can easily be sold to kabadiwallas. Taking a step back, most householders already know that recyclables can be sold to kabadiwallas . But that itself hasn’t reached anywhere near its full potential, and is the motive behind our work. With regards to organic waste, it is the lack of knowledge about how exactly it can be managed that poses a big challenge.
As part of our original Neighbourhood Champions campaign, we held a series of community meetings with apartment residents to motivate them to segregate and manage their waste better, using motivated individuals -‘Neighbourhood Champions’ - as vehicles to drive change. With each meeting, new realities dawned on us. Lack of incentives, differing degrees of enthusiasm, space, manpower, time, lack of knowledge of proper technique etc, are just some of the factors that prevented better waste management systems for either being implemented, or sustained.
Any and all waste management interventions are futile if they don’t address one fundamental problem: the lack of waste segregation at source. As long as people put their recyclable, organic, hazardous and sanitary waste in the same bin, the corporation collects and dumps it at either Perungudi or Kodungaiyur landfills. Sadly, the majority of Chennai’s citizenry take this for granted to be the only solution to household waste. Before you nod in agreement, let’s look at some facts: 47% of the waste going into landfills is organic waste and 18% is recyclable waste. Furthermore, out of the total 4500 tonnes generated everyday, 68% is residential waste. Instead of being discarded, recyclable waste can be sold to our amazing scrap dealer network who already keep a significant amount of waste out of landfills, thereby increasing their revenue as well. Organic waste too, can be dealt with through a process called ‘composting’. For those of you who don’t know, it is a biological process by which micro-organisms break down organic matter into a nutrient rich, soil like substance called compost. To sum this up, if our residences, commercial establishments and institutions simply managed organic and recyclable waste properly, we can keep over 60% of our waste out of landfills!
கபாடிவால கனெக்ட்டின் , சமூக மேலாளராக பணி புரியும் நான், எனது அன்றாட பணிகளில் மிக முக்கியமானது பழைய பொருள் வாங்கும் வியாபாரிகளின் கடைகளை கண்டுபிடித்து, அவர்களை பற்றி தெரிந்து கொண்டு விபரங்களை பதிவு செய்வது. இது வரை நான் சுமார் 100 கடைகளை அடையலாம் கண்டு, அவர்களுடன் பேசியுளேன். பேசும் போது அவர்களை பற்றி பல விசயங்கள் தெரிந்து கொள்ள வாய்ப்பாக அமைந்தது.
I’m a Community Manager with Kabadiwalla Connect. One of my tasks is to find and map the kabadiwalla shops in the city. So, far I have mapped 100 kabadiwallas. I jumped into this mapping within a day of joining, so I was very nervous. As I headed out, I wondered how I would manage this strange new app (ODK) that I was supposed to use. Standing in front of the first kabadiwalla, I hesitated. How would the man standing in front of me react if I ask to interview him?
Chennai generates 4500 tonnes of solid waste per day, which ends up in both of its landfills. It also hosts an informal sector that comprises a robust ecosystem of scrap dealers who recover and recycle incredible amounts of waste everyday. We created our Information Service so that waste is diverted away from landfills and channeled to these scrap dealers or ‘kabadiwallas’. We hope that in the long run this keeps a significant amount of waste out of landfills, while increasing the kabadiwallas’ income and creating a platform for discussions to include them in waste management policy.
A used bicycle tyre in a rural village became a toy in the hands of an able parent or child with the addition of a mere stick and an old saree found a place in the window as a curtain. These creations were the result of involuntary upcycling. Upcycling began in developing countries as a means of frugally repurposing waste, often with added value. It unintentionally reduces the amount of waste that goes into landfills.
Although often dismissed by proponents of the dismal science, the fact remains that the global economy has hitherto been based on an exploitative model of natural resource consumption. Post industrialisation, a fundamental concept has pervaded all conventional economic models viz. the take-make-dispose paradigm. This ‘linear system’ of resource use involves the extraction of resources, manufacturing of products which are sold to consumers, and eventually disposal of those products. The continued practice of this system is coming up against increasing constraints arising from resource scarcity and alternatives incorporating reuse, refurbishment and recycling of materials are fast replacing the viability of sourcing virgin materials. The world’s growing and increasingly affluent population has caused an overuse of resources, higher price levels and increasing market volatility.
One of the interesting things we’ve noticed over the last couple of months of fieldwork is that there exists a strong hierarchy in the kinds of materials scrap-dealers prefer to deal with. Often, these preferences can be broken down into super-specialized items. For instance, the informal sector views plastic as more than 10 specific sub-categories, each of which has a distinct price point. And while they’re more than willing to pay competitive prices for some of them (for instance, a PET bottle), they tend to steer clear from others, such as Tetrapak and shiny packaging material. In fact, even those scrap-dealers that buy plastic as a whole generally sift out the items of value and discard these materials.
Mangai Akka, who became the owner of Chellathai Waste Paper Mart in 2006, talks to me about how juggling the shop and her home has been quite the difficult task for her. By the time she sends off her eldest son and her younger girls to college, she says it’s really late for her to open the shop. This is something that she refuses to compromise on, even though her children are old enough to take care of themselves. To her, the children come first. Widowed at the young age of 24, Mangai Akka tells me her only ambition in life is to make sure her children have the best of everything and that they don’t lack for anything.