Plastic and waste problem intrigued me and I took up to study the problem and see what can be the solutions, why there is nothing yet and so on. It took three months and here’s the report of my findings. I see that there are people equipped to provide solutions. So I would move on to study next problem now.
This report has following components.
Summary of research
Plastics and Waste are considered serious problems and feature in media often due to its adverse effects on health, environment, tourism and general well being. There are good number of organisations working towards it, but even then to a layman solution doesn’t seem to be visible. Government doesn’t appear to be bothered severely as well.
However, there are solutions. We have organisations like Hasiru Dala (and other similar companies, like Shudh Labh) that provide garbage disposal solutions and companies like Velankani Earth One Pvt Ltd who are in process of building them that would solve the problem from root in an ecological and economical way. With support from public and government these solutions should be available and widespread soon. We need to do our bit to make them known.
There could be other companies too, but for me presence of these organisations seemed to complete picture desired solutions.
Maybe lot of people in the ecosystem new all this already and there is nothing new for them in it, but I didn’t. And I didn’t get these answers immediately as well. And that’s what drove me to study it.
(Research was primarily done in Bangalore, but I think it is equally pertinent for other parts of India)
Details on the solutions
There are quite a few organisations out there working in improving waste management.
They provide help on following:
- Help in recycling
- Help in processing of waste e.g. composting
- Spreading awareness about good practices
- Help in collection and disposal
- Providing technology for better managing processes
- Helping folks in the ecosystem to get better recognition
- Building technology solutions for handling waste better
Out of the various organisations, two of them that I feel are providing key sustainable and full circle solutions are Hasiru Dala and Velankani EarthOne Pvt Ltd.
BBMP took a decision few years ago to have contracts for waste collection and disposal by Bulk Waste Generators (BWGs — Offices, Apartment complexes etc.) to be up to the BWGs as long as they select from one of the empaneled vendors.
It has opened up scope for good companies who conduct professionally and in an environment friendly way. Hasiru Dala, Shudh Labh and few other such organisations are empaneled vendors with BBMP and are doing a great job.
They have built an ecosystem of their own in which they assure that only very little to none waste goes to landfills or gets incinerated. They make sure most of it gets either recycled or processed for compost.
Their system is working very well with offices and apartment complexes that they work with. People are appreciative and these organisations have been either able to build a sustainable system, or are on the way to do that. I strongly believe that apartment societies and colonies that are not using any such garbage solutions provider, should start using one immediately.
Only challenge that I see is that this solution won’t scale to cover >90% of population and area unless someone invests heavily in spreading awareness. That would be a mighty cost and time.
Here comes the Velankani EarthOne Pvt Ltd. They are building solutions which do not depend on people segregating the waste. Velankani acknowledges that pre segregation is good practice and quality of output (compost, recycling etc) is much better if waste is segregated at source rather than being done by machine. However, their solution can work in both the cases, i.e. the one where waste is segregated at source, and the one where it is not. They also have full circle solutions where they study the locale, waste samples and provide their recommended processes and solutions right from collection to the disposal/recycling.
In future, policies/processes/solutions can be created in such a way that segregation becomes easier and rewarding, and that would lead to increase in segregation and hence an even better ecosystem.
One thing that is still toubling me is that their solutions would still need time to build. Then they would need to validate it under Indian conditions, and will have to get government support to implement these on larger scale. But the team seemed well aware of these challenges and seemed equipped to handle these. They are working on Electronic City project currently and expect it to be ready by early 2018. They are also working with BBMP where they have done study of West Bangalore. I wish them all the best and wish that they bring the solution to life, soon.
I have more detailed notes on these solutions and other people that I spoke with. Do reach out to me in case you would like to know more.
Q&A on Waste Management and Plastic
Some questions that I had during the research, and some others may have too
Q: How bad is plastic?
A: My study seems to suggest that plastic in itself is not so bad as long as it is above certain density, as there are solutions like recycling, making fuel, making roads etc. Low density ones can’t be recycled well/easily so that should be avoided and ban on it is good. However, it is important to make sure that the plastic goes to the right recycling units. If such an ecosystem is present, plastic shouldn’t be as big an issue as it is economically much more viable than alternatives.
Q: Can we not build water bottles from different materials or maybe have kiosks for water bottle and fill them?
A: If economically viable, then surely they would be good solutions.
Q: Are all packaging types good?
A: No. Packs like Chips packets (Lays, Kurkure etc) or tetrapaks are not easily recyclable as they have multiple layers and what not. Such materials should be discouraged.
Q: Why there is so bad picture of plastic in our minds?
A: Because at most of the places, administration or politicians choose easy route of dumping waste rather than processing it, and in that case plastic is real bad. Plastic is surely not decomposable (though they are building that kind also nowadays), but is recyclable and that aspect should be utilised.
Q: So should we use plastic without any guilt?
A: Yes and No. Till we have super solid waste recycling and disposal system set up, plastic would continue to be a nuisance for environment. We all definitely should follow mantra of three R’s. Reduce, Recycle, Reuse. Use and dispose plastic responsibly and reuse wherever possible. Use environment friendly and reusable alternatives wherever possible.
Q: So ban on plastic is good or bad?
A: Ban on thin and low density plastics is good as they are not recycled and segregated easily. They should probably remove ban on other plastic items and introduce ban on other complex packaging materials like chips packets and tetrapaks. Those producers should be asked to find alternatives that are easy on ecosystem.
Q: What is this mafia? What goes wrong?
A: From what I hear lot of contractors that BBMP gives contract to for collecting/disposing waste, are mafia kind and they choose easier paths which are not good for environment. Politicians get money from them, and hence an equilibrium of sorts exists where both parties are happy with bad solution.
Q: Why do mafia not employ good practices? Some examples? Can this problem be solved?
A: Currently incentives for contractors are not aligned towards doing a good job. E.g. They are paid for travel charges for carrying waste. Now they end up preferring far landfills for this, and end up faking numbers. Then they are paid on the basis of amount of garbage that they carry. With this all the more reason that they don’t prefer segregating the waste or processing as much as possible, locally. I do feel that if appropriate systems are designed with proper incentivisation, then these contractors would indeed change their practices to be environment friendly ones.
Q: How is waste management problem handled internationally?
A: Key differences in Indian and other developed countries is that they are more open to putting money to the problem, their waste composition is different, and they are more open to researching and implementing technology. However, we are also working on similar solutions now. A great study of methods followed across different countries are in this study on Solid Waste Management in the World’s cities by United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-HABITAT)). It is a very well written and well researched report. Except for the technology of waste segregation it touches almost everything related to the ecosystem.
Q: What are the problems with people segregating their waste?
A: It is a good practice and we all should do it. However, there are items which are complex, and it does add to confusion and cognitive load to the people while throwing waste. More importantly, from policy/process maker perspective authorities need to keep in mind that there would be a big sect of people who won’t do it unless educated and educating them would be a very expensive and time taking exercise. So, they need to build solutions which take care of both scenarios.
Q: So if there are solutions out there, shouldn’t we do anything?
A: Please follow mantra of 3R’s (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle). Get appropriate solution of garbage disposal installed in your society. Details here. And agitate the government wherever and whenever you can to use the solutions being built by organisations I mentioned.
Q: So, when will we see a garbage free city and ecological solutions?
A: That’s one point which is bit troubling. Solutions like Hasiru Dala require spreading awareness, and solutions like Velankani would take time to come and would need government support to go on large scale. Both the teams are well qualified to overcome their challenges. Let’s wait for the solutions.
Summary of Survey on waste segregation
Due to me not being convinced with need to have people segregate their waste, I conducted a survey in the folks (mostly in my social network) on the same. Here are the findings of the survey. I still own a bowl of fresh salad to many of the people who participated.
This survey should be taken with a pinch of a salt as it is mostly from my social network, which is representative of a small sect of society, while Waste Generation is done by so many different sects.
My reading of survey were following:
- Most of the folks are aware of the waste segregation
- A good percentage of them do it as well at home, but not so much at office.
- But one third of them don’t do it at home as well even though they would like to and intend to.
- A good percentage of them struggle doing waste segregation
Summary of my journey of research
People buying water bottles and then throwing them away irked me. I felt it was bad practice and we needed a solution to that.
My initial guess was that I would either create an alternative material of packaging, or maybe a chain of water kiosks (old time style water outlets) in the cities, railway stations etc so that people refill the bottles instead of throwing them.
Then after some studies, I moved on to plastic as whole rather than just water bottles.
I wanted to solve the plastic problem that we keep hearing every other day in media, with sea getting filled with plastics, cows dying etc.
I spoke to few people whose profession was based on plastics. Came to the realisation that noise that is made around plastics and ban on plastics is bit overstated and overreaction. Plastic as such is fine, as it can be recycled almost completely. I personally went and saw recycling being done. However, the key issue it seemed was that recyclers didn’t get the plastic to recycle. We were not managing waste well.
So the problem now got moved on to Waste Management.
Spoke to quite a few people in Waste Management field. Came across lot of companies. Companies that build products for composting, companies that help you dump your garbage, companies that take care of e-waste etc. In fact there are a lot of organisations working in this space. That intrigued me even more as to why if so many organisations are there, we are not getting problem solved.
That made me realise that there are processes and protocols for managing waste, but issue hinged on two key things. Waste Segregation (People’s willingness to segregate the waste) and political willingness to get right solutions implemented.
Now my research slowed down a bit, as nobody gave good pointers beyond this. People told that public need to change their behaviour and segregate waste, Mafia controls the waste so it can’t be touched etc.
I felt that if we have right solution thought of, we can build ecosystem in such a way that mafia would continue getting benefitted and would be incentivised to work with ecosystem rather than against it.
Then I focussed my thinking on waste segregation. I was not convinced that right solution is to have people change their behaviour. I felt while it is a good thing and everyone must do it, it is not practical to think that all citizens would start doing it anytime soon and also it won’t be really possible to do it in all the contexts like malls, offices etc.
After a bit of research, I finally did come across a team which is working on building Waste Collection/Segregation/Management solutions with help of technology which doesn’t depend on people segregating the waste.
With this, I conclude that though problem of waste and plastic is severe, and we have lot of organisations who albeit are doing noble work, are not solving the root problem. However, we do have some people working on root problem and should have good solutions soon which would help us have a cleaner and sustainable waste management system.
It was an interesting journey with fair share of both encouragements and set-backs.
I was stuck on couple of questions for weeks with not getting responses from people and not getting connected with appropriate folks. There are a lof them that I reached out to. Governmental authorities, Professors, Technologists, Private Enterprises, NGOs, Social Change Groups etc.
Some people asked me what my vested interest was, offered me commissions on selling their solutions. Some folks were outright discouraging and asked me to stop it, telling there is no future of this problem. Some people refused to respond or meet.
Fortunately some of the links worked out and here I am with having my curiosity satiated on the questions I had 🙂
I did this research independently driven by motivation to find the root of the plastic (and waste) problem, figure out why it is not getting solved and solve it if possible. All findings here are just based on my interactions with different people of the ecosystem. There was no other vested interest or any organisation asking me to do it. Please validate information mentioned here before using it for some official purpose. And please don’t go legal on me in case I have crossed any line or made any mistake unintentionally 🙂
Thank you all the folks who helped me get answers to my questions. Here’s a list in no particular order, and possibly not very exhaustive. Apologies for unintended omissions.
- KSPA president Mr. Vijay Kumar gave lot of key insights on reality of plastic ecosystem.
- SWMRT (Malini Parmar, Shekar Prabhakar, Meenakshi Bharath) for connecting me to right people/forums and guiding on lot of realities of Waste Management ecosystem
- Ramanan from Shudh Labh
- Velankani Team (Vishwas, Chris, Uma, Mara)
- Hasiru Dala (Shekar Prabhakar, Aniket Bhalerao, Shankar)
- Ramachandra from Roopa Plastics for showing me plastic recycling plant
- MS Kaleem from MSK Plastics to show me plastic recycling ecosystem
- Karan from iGotGarbage for explaining problem of waste management and their solution
- Abhishek from Reddonatura for explaining their solution and challenges
- Thanesh and Prakash from JERS for explaining their product.
- Akshatha for connecting me to KSPA president and start my research journey
- Ram Kumar for sharing his journey of struggle with BBMP regarding waste management.
- All the people who took part in the survey
There were some folks with whom I had brief discussions over phone and couldn’t meet due to logistical issues. There were some folks who I couldn’t meet as I had met some similar organisations already, so I chose to not trouble them. Some were outright discouraging and asked me to stop it without giving any constructive feedback, and just told that there is no solution. I don’t want to malign them, so have skipped mentioning those people here.
There are a lot of organisations that I studied are doing great work, e.g. 2bin1bag. I have not mentioned many of these for brevity, but cheers to all of them who get their hands dirty so that city can be kept clean!