Zero waste practitioner & expert, and program director at Kerala-based Thanal, Shibu Nair says Chennai can go the zero waste way

As the garbage crisis keeps on mounting and extends from public health issues to environmental and social issues, the solutions remain far. The efforts to control this menace unfortunately end up in a mess resulting in draining public resources, contaminating the environment and most importantly, taking away the hope and confidence of people on working for a solution.

The issue of waste requires a fresh perspective.

Firstly, we need to recognise that this problem of waste was not so bad three decades ago. We have ended up in a situation through a continuous and enormous process over the last 30 years. And there is no ‘magic wand’ available for a short cut.

Secondly, we need to understand that the problem was created by ‘us’. So the solution should be explored within ‘us’. We tend to find fault with the materials we use and trying to find solutions which will make them “disappear”. As long as Einstein’s law ‘neither matter can be produced nor destroyed’ prevails and remains unchallenged, we need to understand that all the ‘modern’, ‘hi-tech’ solutions that we rely on only shift the problem a few meters above or below the ground. They contaminate our life support sytems and save toxics cumulatively for the future.

What is zero waste?

Hence we need a paradigm shift. A mental revolution to recognise that waste management is impossible and what we can do is ‘resource management’. This is not a novel concept and was practised 30 years ago. We had a cultured community which valued resources and relations.

Zero-waste aims at “ethical, efficient and economical resource use models” which eliminates the 'idea of waste'. There is nothing called waste until it is wasted. The useless things are actually ‘used less’ for which some people may find some utility at a point of time. If we can create systems to save these used-less materials for recovery to be reused or recycled, we can tide over the issue of waste and can save a lot of energy and resources by providing more employment and economic opportunities without harming the ecological balance.

Zero Waste has been defined by Zero Waste International Alliance, a network of people and institutions across the globe working for zero waste as:

“Zero Waste is a goal that is ethical, economical, efficient and visionary, to guide people in changing their lifestyles and practices to emulate sustainable natural cycles, where all discarded materials are designed to become resources for others to use."

Zero waste means designing and managing products and processes to systematically avoid and eliminate the volume and toxicity of waste and materials, conserve and recover all resources, and not burn or bury them.

Implementing zero waste will eliminate all discharges to land, water or air that are a threat to planetary, human, animal or plant health.

Zero waste is a broad canvass where each individual has a space to contribute. Hence anything and everything becomes zero waste provided it is a well thought activity without compromising the spirit of zero waste. Zero waste is not management of waste but is management of resources. So it begins from mindful and ethical consumption practices – which needs change in attitude of people to grow into a caring society. It should be supplemented with Clean Production systems which reduces resource use and minimises discards, where the production system is designed in such a way not to contaminate the discards with complex toxics.

Need for a Material Recovery Facility

This also includes Extended Producer Responsibility where recovery or safe disposal of post-consumer products and discards from production back into the system to complete the cycle of materials to emulate cycles of nature. Resource Recovery Systems are another important part of any zero waste system which makes it possible for every discard to find its way back to the material flow. The simple Material Recovery Facility – a shed where people can store sorted discards for a short period of time to send it to the recycling facilities – is a common thing in the Philippines. The simplest MRF starts at home with a few used bags hung in your back yard to hold sorted discards for a month.

Biological processing of organic discards at a decentralised level plays a vital role in any zero waste system which makes it possible for the nutrient flow in a cycle, the very basis of life on earth.

While designing and developing a zero waste system it is important to have public consultation and participation to ensure that the people ‘own up’ the system which ensures its sustainability.

A policy which focusses on conservation and recovery of resources should be developed by the government which will encourage efficient products and processes and must discourage inefficient resource use practices such as disposable plastic products.

Chennai can go zero waste

There are a raft of initiatives that keep alive the hope that Chennai can go the zero waste way.

The Exnora community composting programmes, www.kuppathotti.com, www.no-burn.org and www.aidindia.org are among them. Another notable effort is city-based Paperman, started by a few youths to support women education by raising funds through recycling paper. www.dailydump.org, based in Bangalore, is another great zero waste business.

Also promoting the goal of zero waste are hire service outlets in our cities -- shops that rent out plates, cups, containers and other utensils; and envelope reuse programmes adopted in many government offices.

Media houses like The Hindu and many more organisations have stepped forward to help solve the issue of resource management. You can also find documents and movies on our website (www.thanal.co.in) that help get a grip on effective management of garbage.

What are you waiting for?

Get a couple of film stars on your side. Make them speak to the public, you will see the impact. Consolidate existing systems and expertise, encourage household-level, institution-level, neighbourhood-level pilot projects; support government offices and other public institutions to come up with pilot projects for composting, resource recovery, waste minimisation; encourage your ward councillor to start his own composting unit. The change will come.

Shibu Nair is a zero waste practitioner & expert and program director at Thanal, a Kerala-based environmental organisation

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