Introduction | Why it’s important to segregate
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: over 50% of the waste going into landfills is organic waste and around 20% 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 70% of our waste out of landfills!
In this post, we’d like to highlight source segregation as the essential stepping stone to a reduction in the amount of waste we send to landfills. Furthermore we use our data to show you how much we can increase the revenue generated by scrap dealers if we sent more of our recyclable waste to them.
Current Scenario | How many people segregate?
At present, 68% of the 4500 tons of waste that Chennai produces everyday, comes from households. It is difficult to estimate how many households that amounts to but assuming an ideal scenario, if 100% of all households recycled and composted their waste, at the very least there would be a 50% reduction in the amount of waste going into landfills - that’s 2250 tonnes less everyday!
According to a world bank report on global solid waste management, reliable global MSW information is either not available or incomplete, inconsistent, and incomparable. There is no data available on the exact number of households who do and don’t segregate in Chennai either. Through our search for ‘everyday recyclers’ however, we have found a number of individuals who have been composting at home, and a lot of households already sell their dry waste to Kabadiwallas. However the number of people composting at home only constitutes a negligible percentage of the total population of Chennai.
There are a number of ULBs and residential associations who have made sincere efforts and managed to effect a laudable degree of change in their respective communities. Kalakshetra colony, some residential communities in MRC Nagar, Shanthi Nagar etc to name a few, are localities where residents have moved away from conventional disposal systems to more decentralized management systems, having laid the foundation by segregating in each household. Several communities continue their efforts in silence, but a louder voice is needed to deal with a problem of this magnitude.
What are some initiatives that push people to segregate?
In Bangalore at present, an initiative called ‘2 bins 1 bag’ is making waves. A collaboration between Urban Local Bodies and the BBMP, the initiative has taken a simple idea and made it trendy enough for the likes of Rahul Dravid, Milind Soman and Raghu Dixit to endorse it. They provide a package which includes 2 plastic buckets or ‘bins’, colour coded red for hazardous waste and green for organic waste, along with a bag for recyclable waste. It is essentially a 3 receptacle system which should be a no-brainer for every household in the world to follow, and yet we’d faster familiarise ourselves with new mobile and computer technology every six months, than get used to a simple underarm motion aimed at three targets.
The private sector has also forayed into this space with an interesting approach. ITCs WoW (Wealth out of Waste) programme has been extremely successful. ITC distributes a bag to households in select localities, for them to put their paper, plastic and metal into. Every 10 - 15 days it is collected and taken to a scrap yard where the paper is baled and sent to one of ITCs reprocessing units. Originally piloted in Andhra Pradesh, WoW is now operational in Bangalore, Chennai, Cochin, Coimbatore and Madurai. They have subsequently partnered with Ramky Enviro Engineers, India’s largest waste management company.
What happens when we don’t segregate?
When household waste is not segregated, the most common practice is to routinely empty the day’s trash, organics and recyclables combined, into the green corporation bins commonly found on every street. It is then collected by trucks (contracted out to Ramky Enviro Engineers) and taken to transfer stations. Here, waste pickers try to recover as much recyclable material as they can to sell for money, after which the trash is taken either to Kodungaiyur or Perungudi landfills and dumped unscientifically.
Landfills are supposed to be sanitary but that is far from the case in Chennai. Each landfill is a 200 acre plot of rotting, festering and often burning garbage. Toxic chemicals from hazardous waste seeps into the ground over time and pollutes the ground water supply. Most people are unaware that the amount of heavy metals, chlorides, fluorides and particulate matter in our water is much higher than permissible levels. Hazardous waste in landfills are also sources of dioxins and furans, extremely carcinogenic substances. Check out toxics link’s factsheets on dioxins for more graphic details.
What happens to plastic that is dumped unscientifically?
To put things into perspective, organic waste such as fruit and vegetables takes anywhere between 1 - 6 months to decompose, whereas the average PET bottle takes approximately 450 years to decompose. Believe it or not, this is actually the lower end of the spectrum. I am sure we are all aware of that infamous piece of trivia about styrofoam cups taking close to a million years to disintegrate. It may also come as a surprise to some that a glass bottle too, takes a million years to disintegrate! Glass is also the only material than can be truly ‘recycled’ as opposed to plastic and paper which lose quality each time they are processed (known as ‘downcycling’). Why then, would we ever consider throwing glass away unless it is broken? There is a clear incentive here for people to sell glass, plastic, paper and e-waste to the informal waste sector so they don’t end up in landfills, on roadsides and in water bodies. The cost of waste disposal is seemingly externalized (when somebody else pays the price for an action you commit) as communities living near landfills and other disposal sites are the ones affected immediately, but a little awareness on the subject will make people realize that eventually the cost is borne by all, through polluted air, water and soil.
The simple failure to segregate waste at home compounds a much larger problem which is fast reaching a stage that may be insurmountable for us. Hard-hitting images of trash polluting beaches and oceans across the globe have brought to light the magnitude and seriousness of the problem. Check out these images from National Geographic if you haven’t already. An estimated 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into our oceans every year. That is equal to five grocery bags for every foot of coastline in the entire world! This is in addition to a host of other problems such as ocean acidification, biomagnification, soil contamination, and ground and surface water pollution.
Interventions such as ‘waste-to-energy,' intended to remediate the mounting garbage problem, are still controversial and fraught with ethical and environmental concerns. Moreover, they fail to address the fundamental issue of waste generation and the need to curb the usage of virgin materials in the first place. It seems the only way forward is a ‘circular economy’, widely championed in Europe at present. A circular economy is essentially a system wherein materials are fed back into the manufacturing chain as far as possible, though reuse, refurbishment and recycling. Check out our earlier post on the circular economy to know more.
What could happen if we started segregating?
Let’s take a look at the kind of change that can actually take effect it we achieved a greater degree of household segregation. Looking at our data from the three zones in Chennai that we mapped, Kabadiwallas currently handle an estimated 5730 tonnes of paper, 2100 tonnes of plastic, and 2070 tonnes of glass every month. Compared against the total paper, plastic and glass waste generated by the city every month, we see that 40% of all paper, 18% of all plastic and 60% of all glass waste produced by the city is currently handled by the informal sector. This means that they currently keep approximately 35% of all paper, plastic and glass waste generated out of our landfills! Although significant, this is only 1/3rd of all the recyclable waste generated. By simply segregating our recyclables from our organics, we can boost the informal sector’s revenue three-fold and keep an additional 21,829 tonnes of waste out of the landfill every month! We've built a simple visualization to illustrate this, move the slider on the left to see how selling our recyclables to kabadiwallas reduces waste in the landfill and improves their revenue.
Now let’s look at organic waste. This is by far the biggest contributor to the waste generated every day. 47% of the total waste going to landfills is organic waste. At the household level, about 60% of our waste is organic. If we composted our organic waste, that constitutes the largest chunk of waste being kept out of landfills.
At present, only a handful of citizens compost at home. This is largely due to a lack of awareness of what composting is, to begin with. Furthermore, many people find it difficult to get the hang of, simply because of a lack of knowledge of proper technique. Composting is actually a very simple process and if done correctly, odour-free, pest-free and hardly takes time off one’s weekly schedule. There is a plethora of resources and services available to help you at every level, right from turnkey solution providers who will come home and set up from scratch, retailers who provide products to get started, right up to urban gardening specialists who will help you set up amazing terrace/home gardens where you can utilize your compost. We are building a list of organic waste service providers on our website that will help you start from scratch and work up to a convenient, efficient and least time-consuming routine to manage your organic waste.
Become a Neighbourhood Champion!
It is clear that there can be no substantial change in the waste landscape without the adoption of segregation at home on a larger scale. Roadblocks including the lack of awareness of scrap dealers to take your recyclable waste, and improper knowledge of composting, can only be overcome through adequate knowledge transfer. This has to be facilitated at the community level by individuals with expertise, in collaboration with community based organisations. This is the driving motive behind our Neighbourhood Champions campaign. We aim to constitute a citizens resource base by connecting with as many individuals as possible who are currently segregating and composting. We are looking to work with individuals who are excited to lead segregation and recycling efforts in their local neighbourhood and we believe that this community is at the core of achieving a 60% reduction in waste going to landfills.
- Written by Farhaad Khazvini
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