Ever wondered if there is an industry that creates lakhs of jobs while banishing pollution, dengue and lowering greenhouse gas emissions?
Hint: It’s hiding in plain sight.
What is the status-quo?
In most cities, under-staffed corporations with multiple mandates (of which managing solid waste is just one) are tasked with collecting and managing our waste. There are no incentives to adopt the more complicated segregated garbage system. There is often little or no training for the users. In fact, the current remuneration structure for contractors, which pays more for weight carried and distance, encourages dumping, not management.
In this context, let us talk about Bengaluru.
Bengaluru generates 3500-5000 tonnes of solid waste daily, of which it collects approximately 80 percent, average by Indian-city-standards.
A new beginning
However, something interesting happened a few years ago. The citizen movement in waste has always been strong in Bengaluru. This movement culminated in a PIL filed in the High Court asking for better waste management based on segregation (and management) at source. The High Court responded by ruling that bulk generators of waste (offices, apartment complexes, hospitals, restaurants etc.) had to segregate and manage their waste and allowed them to use private contractors directly.
This transformed the waste management industry.
Today, Bengaluru manages around 40 percent of its garbage. That is, 1500 tonnes of trash is now managed — made into biogas, compost, following different dry-waste pathways — rather than going to a landfill. Most Indian cities manage only 20 percent of their waste, much of it courtesy of waste pickers.
Speaking of waste pickers — is there a sorrier tale in India?
The unmentioned, invisible millions who manage our waste for us. Because they are exposed at point-blank range to the poisons in our waste, they have a shockingly short life expectancy. Someone told me this story: A grandfather was driving his foreign-born-and-raised grandson from the airport on the child’s first visit to India. The car stopped at a signal and a young waste-picker approached the car begging. The grandfather, as many of us might have, ignored the child. But his grandson said “Baba, there is a child asking for your help!”. “Where?” asked the grandfather. “There!” said the grandson, pointing at the child outside.
The grandfather finally realised who his grandson was pointing at.
It took a child to point out the truth: we often don’t see what see what is right before us. Ragpickers exist on the “raw edges of humanity”, rummaging for dry waste in the smouldering landfills and streets to sell to waste merchants. They do so because we choose not to segregate.
This is unacceptable.
But this tale can be spun another way.
Thangamma wears thick blue gloves, a mask and an apron. She works with precision — unerringly taking one component after the other and placing it in the appropriate bin. Her attitude, attire and approach would not be out of place in a high-tech factory working with printed circuit boards, but the truth is that Thangamma is working with soiled napkins, bits of waste paper and used plastic bottles. She takes a basket filled to the brim, and with a group of other middle-aged women, she puts the crumpled paper napkin into one bag, a used paper cup into a second, a Lays cover into a third. They keep working quietly, talking to each other while their hands move with surgical precision. Each piece they sort is one less piece into the landfill – quite a bit more than that since segregation of dry waste allows the wet waste generated to be made into biogas or compost. They work in dignity and safety – a far cry from their less-fortunate cousins working out in the open, in the landfill. She tells me that her daughter has finished her engineering degree. “Is she working?”, I ask. “No, I got her married” Thangamma replies. “But she is continuing to study”.
A ragpicker-turned-employee, sending her daughter to college, assured of a steady income, facing no unnecessary danger in her work, provided with security in the form of PF and ESI, while ensuring less of our waste goes to landfill. What a story! I was hooked, and this is why I invested in the start-up, Saahas.
The Start-up Solutions
The 2012-ruling facilitated the mating of Bengaluru’s innovation ecosystem with the city’s waste problem. The children of this union are the numerous start-ups that do fantastic work in the city today – one of which is Saahas.
Wilma Rodriguez, who founded and runs Saahas, recently won the prestigious Global Citizen Award as a recognition of her achievements in this field. Wilma believes we can win this war against waste.
Another start-up/NGO is Hasiru Dala, that transforms waste pickers into entrepreneurs, and manages the waste of 27,000 apartments in Bengaluru.
It helps to think of the waste management system in terms of a technology stack — front end, middle and backend. At the customer-facing top end, there are the segregated collection and allied services to help customers migrate to a segregated lifestyle. This is key. Without the awareness, the sensitisation, the training and the handholding, segregation won’t work.
In the middle of the stack we have the QC checking, and further dry waste segregation. Many dry-waste centres are adopting machinery, which dramatically improves dignity and productivity of the workforce (and by extension, how much they can be paid).
At the bottom of the “stack” are the “destinations” for the different types of waste: biogas or compost for wet waste and various options for dry and hazardous waste. Lately, Wilma has partnered with yet another start-up, Carbon Masters, that generates biogas from waste.
A company like Carbon Masters could not have come about unless they had access to large quantities of segregated wet waste such as Saahas or Hasiru Dala can provide. Carbon Masters provides biogas in cylinder form — used to fuel carbon neutral cooking or vehicular fuel. Carbon Masters even runs its fleet of trucks on these cylinders — green transportation indeed!
About 40 percent of dry waste has ready destinations. PET bottles supply a flourishing textile industry. Paper finds a ready home in paper mills. The problem is with lower grades of plastic and waste cloth, which makes up 60 percent of dry waste today. The informal sector converts some plastic into granules, which are then made into pipes, switches etc. But melting the plastic to make the granules releases emissions and effluents that are problematic. Low-grade plastic can also be mixed into bitumen to lay roads, but is facing bottlenecks in adoption.
At the bottom, the very low-quality plastic, cloth waste and the hazardous waste are sent to the incinerators, the cement factories or more commonly, the landfills.
Developing the stack — from awareness, training, hand holding, to providing segregated transport, then secondary segregation and destination development — takes money.
Srikrishna Balachandran, who co-founded I Got Garbage, a technology-enabled waste solutions ecosystem, also believes the waste problem is solvable. But, he says, people need to pay for managing their waste.
Nalini Shekar, who co-founded Hasiru Dala, says the work of ragpickers mucking through 1,050 tonnes of garbage saved the city Rs 84 crores annually. They, who have nothing, subsidise the rest of us.
She says Rs 150-Rs 175 monthly fees per household should cover not only the management of residential waste, but also street waste.
Once we, the citizens, realise that there is a vast difference between dumping waste in landfills and managing it through to the last mile, we “should” be willing to pay for the privilege. Right?
But reality challenges that wisdom: people are unwilling to pay. Often, we talk of rights; But very few of us speak of her mute twin sister: responsibility. They are two sides of a coin — the right to clean streets and clean water comes with the responsibility to pay and segregate.
Worth bearing in mind.
Srikrishna says that most people do not want a landfill in their backyard. Fair enough — landfills are terrible things. They are modern hells — endless mounds of grey, smoking garbage on which all manner of beasts (and humans) roam. The real problem of a landfill lies under the ground. As water seeps through the mountains of waste, it gathers the toxins and enters the ground below, contaminating ground water. Incidence of many diseases — low birth weight in babies, respiratory diseases and cancer in adults — skyrocket near a landfill.
Naturally, citizens near landfills are beginning to protest. So, one by one, the landfills are closing down.
This closure could force the development of more “destinations” for segregated waste. The existing waste management centres are being overwhelmed, for which surely a large part of the blame lies with the incentive systems in place for contractors and municipal staff.
Private waste managers like Saahas, Hasiru Dala or Shudh Labh are different. If they don’t do a good job of collecting, segregating and monetizing the different waste streams, they go extinct. Because their survival depends on it, they are innovating in collection and segregation techniques and spurring innovation in waste stream destinations.
They are also seeding the entrepreneurial space: “The expertise of waste pickers should be leveraged as a valuable resource. They, especially the women, are terrific entrepreneurs,” says Nalini, who has transformed multiple waste pickers into entrepreneurs.
But private waste managers manage only about 100-150 tonnes of waste per day — a tiny fraction of the overall Bengaluru waste generation. Their growth can be a very good thing. Why?
Let me provide an example: some of you may remember the early days of telephones in India. The state operator has a monopoly, and there were long waiting lines for getting a telephone connection. Charges were high, and “cross-talk” was not uncommon.
Today, India has 1.2 billion telephone subscribers. Do you think this could have happened without opening up the sector and allowing innovation to come in?
Why should politicians care?
Waste Management creates jobs — especially among the urban poor.
Let us dive deeper.
There are collectors, drivers to transport the segregated waste to collection centres and beyond. In the dry waste centres, there are workers manning the conveyor belt and the balers, who compress the different wastes into bales for easy transport. Then there are trainers, marketers and management.
In one wet waste “destination”, biogas, there are the feeders of waste into the biogas machines, the drivers who transport wet waste and the finished cylinders to the customers. Then there are the supporting staff — fitters, cleaners and watchman. And finally, there are the management staff, the marketing and engineering teams.
There are more jobs in various dry waste destinations.
These are dignified jobs with benefits — a far cry from the waste pickers rummaging in the open.
Not all these jobs are “new”. Some would simply be displacing workers already employed by the corporation, their contractors or the waste pickers — primarily in collection. But waste management creates entirely new sectors and new jobs.
How many jobs are we talking about?
Very conservative, expert estimates are that 4-5 “new” jobs can be created per tonne of managed waste. These estimates are far lower than what Saahas, Hasiru Dala and Carbon Masters are creating on the ground today and do not include jobs created in Dry Waste destinations. These estimates are also far higher than estimates in developed countries given the much higher levels of mechanisation there.
Managing urban India’s 1,50,000 tonnes of municipal waste could generate 6,00,000 to 7,50,000 jobs while creating a cleaner environment and ensuring dignity and safety for millions.
And all we need to do is unleash the animal spirits that lie hidden within our dustbins.