Waste is only waste if we waste it
Waste has been a global environmental problem and is now entering the realm of economic loss. Collecting this waste is draining our resources while clogging the actual drains too. Like a sponge soaks water, our Earth is soaking in the filth we produce. The production of waste is inevitable in any country so the least we can do is to make sure that minimal amount of toxins is released into the biodiversity. The waste we generate today includes everything from industrial and mining waste to domestic and medical waste, old furniture, bits and pieces of cloth, electronic items and the devil among them, plastic. The amount of waste generated is closely connected to the manufacturing and consumption patterns and with more products entering the market and different socio- economic demographics, the types of waste generated is only growing. Yes, we have complex waste treatment strategies in place, national cleanliness campaigns, we have bodies collecting, analysing and assessing the data for all kinds of waste but when and how will we reach the point where we shift focus from how much waste there is to what can be done to reduce this accumulation of waste?
The first step in tackling this issue is waste segregation. What is segregation? It simply means to separate or set apart. Segregating waste helps to dispose it responsibly and enables us to recycle and reuse appropriate waste right from the start. With more types of waste coming into the picture, more categories of segregation is coming in too. Wet waste, dry waste, semi- dry waste, e- waste, medical waste are just few of the generic ones we know and truth be told, most of us know this only because our housing societies and sanitation workers ask us to segregate the waste before putting it out. School taught us very little in this field, it only taught us about recyclable and non- recyclable waste and it was not even a compulsory subject. Maybe it was not considered important enough but it’s time to stop pointing fingers as this problem is now quite literally burying us and it is burying us deep.
The big companies and industries of today are bound by social obligations to make sure their factories, production and manufacturing processes are environment safe and they have to abide by it or it will just make them look bad. Our friendly neighbourhood environment guardian, Mr. MC Mehta also made sure that those who prove to be hazardous will be held liable for their actions and will have to pay their dues. But what about the small businesses, the millions of households across the country that contribute to this waste menace? We need to understand that waste is an issue of every individual household. Some have adopted composting techniques and use waste for manure and energy but the rest of it goes out, unchecked and unfiltered.
From what we see in the real world, the waste gets segregated in our homes into three piles; wet, dry and medical waste but it all gets dumped into one big truck before leaving the building. The whole purpose of segregating the waste is defeated. One can only imagine the state of affairs in the lower income households, the sub- urban and rural areas where the concept of waste segregation is non- existent. But before introducing the talk or idea of waste segregation we need to understand that it is a privilege for those who actually purchase and consume different kind of products. A family that can afford only vegetables and spices will have peels and wrappers as their waste, nothing more nothing less. With a higher purchasing power, there is a higher degree of waste production and we all know that with great power comes great responsibility.
It is true that one man’s garbage is another man’s treasure. I met a rag picker one day who was collecting glass bottles on the main road. I asked him what he did with those bottles to which he replied that he collected them and sold it to a glass factory outside the city, but he was rather dejected as he never seemed to find enough. This random encounter came to mind when I visited a friend who had one entire shelf in the kitchen dedicated to glass bottles of different shapes and sizes. Her mother had a daily delivery of health drink from a local vendor and since she didn’t know what to do with those bottles, she just hoarded them. If only there was some way to connect that rag picker on the street to this family, a whole lot of glass would be responsibly disposed. But eventually, all that glass goes out the door with all the other waste and is trucked away to some far away dumpyard.
This brings us to the most basic and powerful weapon against all evils plaguing our society: education and awareness. Only if people are aware of the monumental negative impact of this issue will they be willing to do something about it. It would be terribly wrong to expect them to do anything with half or no knowledge. Most of us throw the waste out of our houses and our minds at the same time. It does not seem to be our problem once it is disposed, out of sight, out of mind is our mantra. That is the mind- set that needs to be changed. Waste segragation is often assumed to be something that is applicable only to toddlers and children, sadly it’s the opposite. ‘Best out of waste’ competitions are held in school but where is the applicability in real, everyday life? Adults need to be given a reality check every single day to make them wake up and take this issue seriously. In fact, Gen Z is so aware of the situation that they do small things like pick up tiny bits of scraps and paper after completing a project so that ‘it does not go to waste’ and say things like ‘it’s not cool to litter’. A study conducted by the Department of Environmental Studies, University Putra Malaysia, showed that time constraint, limited space, bin and distance from home to recycling facilities were major factors that prevented community participation in waste segregation. Residential areas can very easily be influenced to indulge in segregation if the facilities were situated close by. Public attitude, behaviour and reaction can be moulded by effective media campaigns, stimulating drives and mixed media advertisements. We can also take the example of the community based campaign in the city of Bengaluru that was started to address the inefficiency of centralized processing units. IASH and two Leibniz University alumni conceptualised a project proposal to implement source segregation and decentralized waste management facility for a block of 800- 1000 households in the period of July 2018- July 2019. Their activities included awareness programs on waste segregation, educating the waste collectors and workers on how to effectively segregate waste, distributing different kinds of bags to collect different kinds of waste and making sure that a system was put in place to ensure proper and regular segregation from all households. This was a very small scale yet highly effective initiative. However, to implement this at the grassroots level is the real task. To persuade people to actually spend their time focusing on waste while they think it’s a waste of their time is a job for the patient and strong willed. That is our duty, the ones who involve in debate and dialogue, the ones who are aware and educated, the ones who are privileged enough to discuss waste segregation as a real solution. It is not enough that one part of society practices it, it needs to become as natural an act as breathing for each and every one of us. It takes one small step, one house, one community to bring about a change that will impact us all.