“Not In My Backyard”

The defining moment in Satyamev Jayate’s episode (16 March ’14), in my mind, was the interview with waste-picker Saru Bai, and the respect and gratitude conveyed by Aamir Khan to her and to other waste-pickers like her. This is a huge step in our country, where “garbage” is considering a dirty job, traditionally done by the lower castes who were categorized as “untouchables” or dalits. These mindsets still continue in a large section of our population, whose attitude is that of “Not In My Backyard”. We put our garbage into a black plastic bag, so that we can’t see the mess that is inside. Once it leaves our house, we don’t want to know what happens to it, and it becomes someone else’s problem. We never consider the possibility that the garbage strewn about in our cities may be because of us. We have become part of the problem.

How do we change this? Can we become part of the solution? The answer is a resounding yes. However, it involves getting our hands dirty! Waiting for the government or municipal authorities to fix things may take too long. It is time we citizens took matters into our own hands. The first step is to understand what happens to our garbage once it leaves our home, and to take responsibility for the garbage we generate. Currently, the garbage we throw from our homes often goes to a landfill (usually in a village on the outskirts of the city) for disposal. This causes myriad problems for the people living in the vicinity of the landfill. Apart from the stench, many diseases spread through unscientific disposal of garbage, and the chemicals released from the mix of biodegradable and plastic waste contaminate the ground water, rendering it unusable for drinking or household purposes.

Changing this cycle requires changing our mindset towards garbage. Actually, nothing that we discard is really “waste” but something of value that we are throwing away. Food waste that we throw away can be turned into high quality compost for our gardens. Plastic and paper that we discard can be recycled for various purposes, but if it is mixed with food waste, then it becomes soggy/soiled and cannot be recycled easily. Garbage segregation then is a necessary step that we must take if our garbage is to be disposed of responsibly. While it sounds fancy, it is really quite simple. Instead of one dustbin in your kitchen, keep two – one for the biodegradable waste (ie, vegetable peels, scraps, leftover food waste) and another for the dry waste (paper, plastic, metal foil, food packaging).

Once the segregation habit is set, it becomes second nature and is very easy to follow. Beyond this, there are numerous steps that can be taken to dispose of segregated garbage in a responsible manner. Below I list some actions that an individual can take easily, as well as steps that a community can take to make an impact towards reducing garbage in our cities and towns.

On individual action:

In our daily lives we need to adopt the mantra of “refuse” and “reduce” first, before we think of reuse or recycle. Lets take plastic as an example. While being convenient in many ways, plastic packaging has turned out to be the scourge of our modern life. Statistics show that an average plastic bag is used for just 12 minutes, but can take upto 500 years to degrade. Yet, we use it indiscriminately and it ends up being thrown on the roadside, where it gets eaten by cows who could suffer painful deaths due to plastic ingestion. If thrown in a landfill, the chemicals in plastic can leach into the groundwater and are highly toxic as they cause all kinds of diseases. Plastic can choke the storm water drains which provide a safe outlet for water in case of heavy rains. The list of problems goes on. In fact, the Supreme Court of India recently declared plastic waste as a “ticking time bomb”, urging cities to look at solutions.

In our own small way, we can change this, it is very simple – just carry a cloth bag everywhere for shopping, especially do not accept the flimsy plastic bags given our by the vegetable/fruit vendors as they are some of the biggest culprits. If you don’t have any, it is easy to get a tailor to stitch one from waste material. There are also some very convenient foldable bags available, which are not only good for the environment but also look good, and benefit rural women. One such is Small Steps, an NGO operating from Pondicherry, which makes cloth bags that can be folded and slipped into your purse, or attached to your belt by a convenient hook. I always keep these in my handbags and at home, including a few in my car, so that I am never caught without a cloth bag. They also make great gifts! In addition to using cloth bags, try to buy less processed foods (which are invariably packaged in plastic), don’t buy bottled water but refill your own water bottle wherever you go. These simple steps will reduce a lot of needless waste.

Another example of easy individual action is that of dealing with wet waste at home. One of the most significant ways in which each of us can help the planet and do our bit to protect our immediate environment as well, is through home composting. Composting is nothing but the process of converting organic or biodegradable waste (ie, food leftovers, vegetable and fruit peels, scraps, chicken/fish bones) into nutrient-rich compost that can be used in our plants and in our gardens. Composting is a natural process which happens on its own, over time, aided by micro-organisms in the vegetable matter. In home composting, this process can be carried out in a large pot (if you live in an apartment) or a compost pit (if you have an individual house with a garden) or a sealed bin placed right on your kitchen counter. One of the simplest and most popular home composting units has been pioneered by a group called Daily Dump, based in Bangalore, which makes and sells “khambha” units for composting. These are large earthen pots, beautifully painted to make them look attractive, in which you can compost your biodegradable waste, right in your apartment. Managed well, there is no smell, plus you get the satisfaction of doing something good for the earth. I have been home composting for 7 years now, which has saved more than 1 ton of waste from going to the landfill! In the process, I have harvested roughly 50 kg of rich compost which provides nutrition for the plants in my balcony. Our individual actions can make a huge impact!

Community wide initiatives for waste management:

There are several initiatives that can be started as a community, if there is a committed group of 3 or 4 people who can guide the effort. Depending on the size of the community, a group of houses or apartments can come together to start community composting of segregated wet waste. The dry waste can also be recycled successfully, especially if the number of apartments or houses is sufficiently high. In the apartment complex where I live, there are more than 800 apartments, and we have a weekly collection of recyclable dry waste. That includes any paper, any kind of plastic, aluminium foil, even tetrapacks, milk packets etc. Residents are asked to rinse any soiled plastic items like milk packets and dry them before keeping them in the collection bags for a week. Our housekeeping staff collects the dry waste on Saturday and sorts them into different categories, which are picked up by the contractor, who pays for the waste on the spot. The money is distributed among the housekeeping staff.

ITC is one of the companies which has a program called “Wealth Out of Waste” (WOW in short), which collects household dry waste from apartment complexes. The paper they collect is recycled for their own purposes, while plastic is sold to another company which creates tar roads from waste plastic. Imagine if all our plastic waste strewn in the cities could be used so beneficially!

In my neighbourhood, we have also done several “spotfixes” to clean up streets where garbage was being dumped indiscriminately. These have been inspired by the anonymous group “The Ugly Indians” whose motto is “Munh Band, Kaam Chaloo” and who shun publicity of any kind. We received suggestions and guidance from them, but the cleanup programmes have been completely driven by the residents, from planning, organizing, doing publicity, cleaning and beautifying the area and putting in place the mechanism for it to remain clean. It is like reclaiming ownership of your own neighbourhood and making a commitment to keeping it clean ourselves. In many cases, the municipal authorities also extend their help, but even if they don’t, it is doable by residents as long as there is a committed core group of 3 or 4 individuals. Videos of the cleanup campaigns are available on Youtube.


Other kinds of Waste:

In addition to wet waste and dry waste, there are other kinds of waste which were briefly touched upon in the Satyamev Jayate episode, which are quite hazardous if disposed carelessly. One of them is electronic waste or e-waste. This includes any electronic items (laptops, pen drives, adaptors, old TVs, mobile phones etc), CFL bulbs, tubelights, CD and DVDs, floppy disks and so on. This category of waste is significant for two reasons – firstly, the large number of electronic products we use and discard nowadays, and secondly, this waste contains highly toxic chemicals (like lead and mercury) which are deleterious to health, and cause all kinds of problems including birth abnormalities in children. Therefore, proper disposal of this waste is extremely important. Some cities do have NGOs and organizations which run recycling programs for e-waste. At the household level, you can make recycling easier by ensuring you do not throw e-waste along with your food waste but give it to a recycler. We can also cut down on e-waste by using solar lamps and torches which don’t need batteries, or using rechargeable batteries which need not be thrown away.

Another important category of waste is sanitary waste which includes sanitary pads and diapers. By average estimates, a woman uses 125 kg of sanitary pads in her lifetime. That is a huge amount of waste that goes to a landfill or is burnt, releasing harmful chemicals. In fact, sanitary pads are made almost entirely of plastic, and a single pad can take 500 or more years to decompose in a landfill! Today there are hygienic as well as eco-friendly options available. Eco Femme is a group in Pondicherry that empowers village women by producing washable and reusable cloth-based sanitary pads. Another company, SheCup, makes menstrual cups that are also friendly for the environment as there is no throwaway product being used.

I should also briefly mention thermocol, which is one material that is not biodegradable nor can it be recycled easily. The correct way to deal with thermocol is to not buy thermocol disposable plates and cups, which are extremely harmful for the environment. And when we buy electronic or consumer products which come packaged in thermocol, it is best to return the thermocol on the spot after delivery of the product, as the consumer goods manufacturers do have ways of dealing with thermocol which the regular waste collectors do not.

Many of these topics were mentioned on the episode, either in detail or briefly touched upon. Aamir Khan and the Satyamev Jayate team have done a tremendous social service by screening such a well researched episode on a critically important issue like waste management and presenting it in such an insightful yet simple manner. Changing entrenched attitudes in society is not easy, and this episode was a significant step in the right direction. Hopefully, it will help to generate more awareness and interest in this subject, and encourage more and more citizens to take moral responsibility for the garbage they generate, and make efforts to dispose it safely.

An old proverb says – “we do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors; we borrow it from our children”. Every little action of ours has an effect on the earth and its future. For the sake of the next generation, we must make sure that we also help to solve the problems created by our own generation. In the words of well known American scientist Margaret Mead – “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

Other Useful Links/Resources:

Join the FB group on segregation & recycling!

If you must use disposable plates, avoid thermocol and use biodegradable areca nut plates instead.

For safe disposal of conventional sanitary napkins and diapers, check in your neighbourhood for facilities authorized to dispose of biomedical waste. One such is Maridi in Bangalore.

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2 Responses to “Not In My Backyard”

  1. Lipi Mehta says:

    Hello, I work with the team of Satyamev Jayate. Your post has some very important information on turning wealth into waste. On behalf of the whole team, we would like to thank you for spreading awareness on this important issue.

  2. bonerpakhi says:

    Thanks, Lipi, for reading. And more importantly, thank you to your team for this well researched episode! 🙂

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