Scaling the mountainous problem of garbage

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The problem of waste management is too large and complicated for citizens to be ignorant of the difference between landfills, a scientific and cost-effective means of disposal, and a dump.

Rubbish! (a.k.a. Kaasu Kuppai, Kaasu Kasa) is a board game designed by Bengaluru-based tech research not-for-profit Fields of View. It engenders a collaborative systematic and action-oriented approach to waste management. | Sruthi Krishnan

“Can we create another landfill?”

A participant asked us this question with hope while playing the board game 'Rubbish!' ('Kaasu-kasa' in Kannada, and 'Kaasu-kuppai' in Tamil). The board game, designed and developed at Bengaluru-based policymaking tech research not-for-profit Fields of View, is modeled on the waste eco-system in an Indian city and derived from real data on dry waste from Bengaluru.

Every round, the city generates waste, and the players have to collect all the waste. The players play the role of a dry-waste collection centre manager, an actor in the middle of the waste chain, and their goal is to create a centre in every ward of the city. Whatever waste the players do not collect goes to a landfill. If the landfill gets full, the game ends and everyone loses.

In the session referred to earlier, the participant saw the landfill getting dangerously close to being full and wanted to extend the game, which happens in almost every game session. This is how a typical session proceeds — initially, all participants focus on themselves, and how to make their units profitable, unmindful of the landfill on the side. It is almost as though the landfill is not something that enters their consciousness. But once the landfill comes close to being filled up, which portends the game’s end, the participants jump up and take notice, mirroring the attitude of different city councils all over India. And, they ask  — ‘Can we create another landfill?’

 

The wording of the question is incorrect. What we have in Indian cities are not landfills. There does exist something called a ‘scientific landfill’, which we discovered during the research phase of designing 'Rubbish!'. You take an expanse of land, dig, and create an impermeable layer so that no leachate escapes from the waste to the soil and there is a system to collect the leachate. The waste is compacted into bales and laid out. After completing the landfill, there has to be a layer finally that consists of soil and vegetation. Such landfills eventually get converted to golf courses or are put to some such use that does not involve cultivation.

What we have here in Indian cities is a dump. A large, large, large dump, an expanse of refuse. A rotting, festering hill similar to the one near Colombo, Sri Lanka, which crashed on April 14, killing more than 30 people (the bodies are still being recovered at the time of writing, so the toll could be higher at the time of reading). Mid-March this year, a similar tragedy occurred in Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, killing around 65 people.

If our cities are the pulsing heart driving our nation’s much-vaunted growth, it comes at a cost — these suppurating hills puncturing the Indian dream. Here is an incomplete list of such hills of fester in the country: Bangalore — Mandur, Mavallipura, Lakshmipura, Bingipura; Mumbai — Deonar, Mulund, Kanjurmarg; Delhi — Ghazipur, Okhla, Bhalswa; Chennai — Perungudi, Kodungaiyur, Tiruvottiyur. There have been protests at Vilappilsala against Trivandrum’s garbage. While planning for a session of 'Rubbish!' in Delhi, a residential-welfare-association member concerned about waste in Gurgaon said that the mall city’s waste was being dumped secretly into the Aravalli range, an ecologically-sensitive region. In April, there was a news report of a fire at Pirana, Ahmedabad’s waste hill.

There is no magic wand. We cannot burn our waste. Given what is suggested by the (meagre) research that exists, we have a long road ahead before Waste-to-Energy can bear fruit in India. What then can be done? Based on the experience from multiple sessions of playing the game 'Rubbish!' with different audiences in various Indian cities, here are some insights:

One size does not fit all

Most Indian cities have been following a centralised model of taking care of the waste, which is to take all the waste and dump it somewhere (Bangalore moved to a decentralised system in 2012). We need an alternative, something that works for a problem as localised as waste. For instance, during the debrief session of 'Rubbish!' in Delhi, different participants spoke of the kinds of waste generated in their areas, and they spoke of how they required completely different strategies to tackle waste in their specific areas. For instance, affluent neighbourhoods with individual houses have a different mix of waste as compared to neighbourhoods with apartments, as compared to markets. It is the same case across different cities.

Waste is too complex an issue for individual organisations or aware citizens to tackle on their own. It requires new research, new technology, and new collaborations between the state, academia, industry, and civil society.

A resident of Jaymahal Palace area who is actively campaigning for waste in her area in Bangalore spoke of how dry leaves from avenue trees is a big component of the waste generated there. An activist working with slums in Bangalore spoke about how in a slum where there are 5,000 houses, everyone segregates such that only half the waste lorry is full. Every neighbourhood needs its own specific strategy to tackle waste, and having a one-size-fits-all approach to waste does not make sense.

Segregate

In 'Rubbish!', we have a chance card, which tells the participants that they can invest a certain amount on awareness and learning initiatives for citizens so that unsegregated waste can turn into segregated waste. Players jump at that card, for the moment you are working with a decentralised system of waste management, the entire system kicks off with segregation at source. After every game session of 'Rubbish!' the one thing participants say is how important segregation is to the success of the system. Unless every household segregates their waste into dry waste, organic waste, and sanitary waste, no amount of technology or operational efficiencies can make a difference. There is no magic wand that can in one swish make everyone segregate — it is a slow process, and requires consistent and continued efforts.

Cooperatives

We had a game session of 'Rubbish!' with sanitation workers in Madhavaram, in the outskirts of Chennai. ('Rubbish!' was designed to be a board game so that it could be played by people with different levels of literacy. Most people have numerical literacy, if not verbal literacy; the game is designed to be accessible to a wide audience.) During the debrief session, one of the sanitation workers said wistfully, "If only we could cooperate like this in real life," for during the game session they did not operate as individuals, but had pooled in their money and decided together where to invest. Most of the sessions where people have won the game involved people forging some kind of cooperation with each other (though the game can be won without such a strategy too).

 

Most of the knowledge about waste in India is with workers in the informal sector. Therefore it makes sense from a sustainability point-of-view (economic, social, environmental) to design any system to manage waste with the informal sector workers at the heart of it. It then comes as no surprise that whenever there are success stories on how Indian cities have managed to take care of waste, be it the oft-cited Pune’s success story thanks to SWaCH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling) Seva Sahakari Sanstha Maryadit or Bangalore’s ongoing story of decentralisation with Hasirudala as a key player, there is a cooperative of workers who are experts on waste at the core (Hasirudala provided subject expertise in designing 'Rubbish!').

Collaborations across institutions

During the debrief session of 'Rubbish!' with a civil society organisation working on waste, the participants spoke about the need to collaborate between different groups who are working on waste. In many sessions with experts in the field, there is talk of dissonance between different groups. Waste is too complex an issue for individual organisations or aware citizens to tackle on their own. It requires new research, new technology, and new collaborations between the state, academia, industry, and civil society. Unless informed conversations happen across such groups, we will end up with bins that have a smart chip embedded in it without the institutional mechanisms to support such innovations.

All of this needed to have happened yesterday. If we do not want headlines similar to what happened in Colombo in Chennai or Kochi (people fled their homes in Brahmapuram unable to stand the fester of Kochi’s garbage), we need to act fast.

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