A handbook to help create zero-waste offices in Bengaluru and beyond

We often follow a use-and-throw lifestyle, with nearly 50% of plastic being used only once before being discarded. A handbook by Saahas and Rainmatter Foundation talks about how people can move towards a zero or low-waste way of living

Updated - March 18, 2024 02:51 pm IST

Published - March 18, 2024 09:00 am IST - Bengaluru

From the zero-waste workshop conducted at Embassy Services.

From the zero-waste workshop conducted at Embassy Services. | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRAGEMENT

“The best way to manage waste is not to generate it in the first place,” says Smita Kulkarni, Communications Consultant, Saahas.

Towards this goal, the non-profit, in partnership with the Rainmatter Foundation, recently released a free guidebook that can help offices in the city minimise their waste. According to Kulkarni, also the co-founder of the social enterprise Stonesoup, many corporations today are already looking at ways to be sustainable, “some for namesake, and some in a deeper sense.” 

As the guidebook, available for free on both the Saahasand Rainmatter Foundation’s websites, points out,  we often follow a use-and-throw lifestyle, with nearly 50% of plastic being used only once before being thrown away. And even if some of these single-use materials are recyclable, they are best avoided, says the guidebook, pointing out that not only is plastic the most significant contributor of mixed waste, but recycling items made of it takes a lot of resources. Additionally, there are few takers of recycled plastic since it becomes dull and brittle after processing, states the guidebook, adding, “Not everything gets recycled.”

Tanmayi Gidh, part of the Outreach and Communications team at Rainmatter Foundation, elaborates on the guidebook’s raison d’etre. “While zero waste is the ideal, it can sometimes feel a little overwhelming,” says Gidh. She feels that moving towards a zero or low-waste lifestyle is not as overwhelming and abstract as it is made out to be, provided one has concrete steps and alternatives listed. “That was the whole intention of developing this guidebook,” she says. 

BBMP garbage trucks dumping garbage in Mittaganahalli quarry pit, in north Bengaluru.

BBMP garbage trucks dumping garbage in Mittaganahalli quarry pit, in north Bengaluru. | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

How it began

Gidh also discusses the project’s genesis. The seeds for the guidebook, she says, were sown around World Environment Day, which falls on June 5. When they considered developing a campaign around the day, they felt that instead of treating it as a one-off event, it is important to create something long-lasting more focused on specific stakeholders.

Waste management, after all, is a crucial piece of the narrative around the environment and climate crisis. “ It is the most tangible problem. Everyone has an impact on that problem, and everyone’s life is impacted by it,” she says, adding that the Rainmatter Foundation decided to start by engaging corporates in the zero-waste pledge because of the volume of waste produced in offices and also because of the ability of changemakers to influence the culture and implement systemic changes in their own organisations. 

As part of the larger World Environment Day campaign, Saahas and the Rainmatter Foundation jointly conducted a zero-waste workshop focused on corporates. From there came the idea of the gap that crops up when changes are suggested, she says. “There is very little support provided to materialise that change, especially when you are doing it at a systemic cultural level,” she believes, pointing out that it takes a lot of handholding, collaboration and support from people who understand the space well. “So yes, we can suggest alternatives. But who is going to help them understand where it can start from,”  says Gidh, who believes that the guidebook can help provide this starting point for anyone since it puts all the information and resources in one place. 

Creating a zero-waste office

So, what are the major top waste generators in a corporation? Kulkarni lists them: tissue papers, sachets, paper cups, and PET bottles. “These constitute 80% of the waste generated in corporates. If we managed these four or even one of these four, there would be a significant impact,” she firmly believes. 

She talks about working closely with organisations like Saahas Zero Waste and the Electronics City Industrial Township Authority (ELCITA) to understand some of the best practices followed in different places. “It is kind of taking a solution from the corporates and giving it back to them,” she says. 

For instance, by replacing tissues with hand dryers, “automatically around 20% of the waste is gone,” she says, going into other practical ways organisations can better manage their resources. Other suggestions? Instead of having a vast collection of sugar sachets, organisations can simply have a jar of sugar with an airtight lid, which “will solve the problem of generating so many sachets every single day,” says Kulkarni. She also says that having reusable mugs and bottles can reduce paper cup usage considerably, while steel spoons can replace stirrers.  And yes, it is important to educate people in organisations about these things. “We made posters as part of it…some messaging across office walls will help reinforce these things,” she believes. 

Practical applications

Remya Mariam Thomas, Head, Human Resources & Admin, Embassy Services Pvt. Ltd, which recently had its facilities team go through a zero-waste workshop, says the organisation has been transforming their workplace culture through innovative waste management initiatives. For instance, they have something called 1 Bay 1 Bin Concept, where dedicated paper waste bins are stationed at strategic points throughout the office bays, discouraging desk-side waste accumulation and prompting employees to dispose of their waste thoughtfully, she says. “This has majorly reduced the paper waste generated at each desk.”

Going by that age-old management concept -- what cannot be measured, cannot be managed -- the company also has a board in the cafeteria that showcases the amount of food waste generated daily. “This initiative has led to a significant reduction in food waste, with a remarkable 50% decrease achieved since its implementation. Additionally, our on-campus organic waste converter transforms food waste into nutrient-rich compost, contributing to our landscaping efforts,” she says, adding that the organisation has also replaced disposable like wooden coffee stirrers, sugar sachets and paper cups with steel spoons, loose sugar and reusable coffee mugs, respectively. “ Through these initiatives, we’re not only mitigating our environmental impact but also fostering a culture of sustainability and mindfulness within our workplace,” she says.

A low-hanging fruit? 

Like Embassy Services, more and more companies are attempting to create this sort of culture in workplaces, something Kulkarni has observed too. “There is pressure from senior management to show sustainability in behaviour and operations (at the workplace),” she says. And yes, since corporate entities always work in a systemic, process-oriented way, she feels that implementing these small changes is “a low-hanging fruit.” 

Having said that, changing mindsets is a long-drawn-out process that takes time. “People don’t even think twice about doing something. It is the norm,” she says, pointing out that while people talk about living sustainably, they often take a selective approach. For instance, while people may be open to drinking from a reusable bottle instead of using paper cups, they don’t always segregate their waste properly.  “The facilities team manually has to segregate many times,” says Kulkarni, who hopes to roll out these zero-waste initiatives to as many corporates in Bengaluru as they can reach.

“We would like corporates who are leading the way to teach the others. We are just the mediators taking some of the best practices of some of these corporates to help the other corporates catch up,” she says, likening it to a Montessori school system where older kids help younger kids with learning. “A small change at the facilities level will result in a huge change as far as waste is concerned,” believes Kulkarni. “If done systematically, I see tremendous success.” 

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