Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Diving into recycling

We set out early this morning with the objective of learning and participating in Bangaluru’s waste management system.
We set out early this morning with the objective of learning and participating in Bangaluru’s waste management system. Entering the second week of our time here in India, it has been interesting to watch the demeanor of our group evolve. I observed my classmates applying a systems thinking approach to waste as we prepared for the day, asking questions about contextual contributing factors and challenges rather than imposing a western view. I was glad to have a week of experience behind us before tackling waste, an issue that appears to be a prominent struggle for India on the facade.

Following a short van ride, we convened at ward 44’s dry waste processing facility. This facility had gone through a facelift in the last month, paralleling a broader shift towards waste segregation in the city driven by grassroots intervention. We were presented with a relatively clean system resembling a factory with a conveyer belt and high ventilated ceilings. This was a drastic change in the last month based on the photos we saw on the wall of the building.

In this new setting, we started to learn the complex system of waste management. We learned the distinction between dry waste and wet waste, recyclables and compostables respectively back home. These two separate waste systems operate separately. The facility we were standing in is run as a for-profit business, independent from the municipality. Profit margins are created by selling high quality recyclables in large quantities. In contrast, similar wet waste centers lack a possibility for profit so they must be financially supported by the city.

With a basic understanding of the complex waste system, our hosts planned for us to follow their waste management process in its entirety. This process began by accompanying dry waste trucks through a local slum neighborhood. We stopped door to door, watching two employees interact with citizens as they carried multiple assorted bins out to the truck for collection. We were caught off guard by how many confrontations and surprises arose because of the new requirement to segregate dry and wet waste. It was clear that locals were still misunderstanding or unhappy with the process. We observed the truck driver turn people away multiple times in the morning because their waste was not separated correctly. These confrontations further escalated when we encountered the similar wet waste vehicle, and there were disagreements about which organization had the right to specific high-value waste products.

At the end of this surprisingly bumpy journey through the local neighborhood, we returned to the dry waste center. The next step in the waste process is further separation of dry waste into specific recyclable categories. Our Accra cohort joined the employees along the factory conveyor belt, separating the waste we gathered by hand into their allotted categories. It was inspiring to hear my peers perk up and become curious about how these same factories run at home.

Our day concluded conversing with local experts on waste management and community drive radio. We scraped the surface of issues including violence towards waste pickers over profit, bribery in the government, basic waste infrastructure for citizens, and lastly, sharing the voice of minorities and day laborers. I had multiple conversations with my peers discussing our surprise at just how little waste each large household produced in the culture compared to our culture of waste back home. It is clear that India has a multifaceted challenge in the form of waste management, but we also took away a realization that our own country can learn a lot about improving consumption from developing and indigenous cultures.