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Kabaadiwallas not enough to fix India’s garbage problem, but this national project could be

In ‘Invertonomics’, Goonmeet Singh Chauhan identifies eight problems plaguing India & how they can be inverted to be looked at as economic opportunities.

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Imagine a situation in which an overwhelming portion of the city’s waste never goes to a landfill. Infact, not only would most of the garbage be recycled, people would actually willingly participate in such a programme! So how do we get there?

Well, what if people were paid – yes, paid – to segregate all their garbage for recycling?

Before I introduce the system to you, it would be good to see how some alternative solutions to our current waste-management problem are working on the ground.

Also read: How to invert India’s socioeconomic problems — New book discusses 8 ideas to transform nation

The Kabaadiwalla

You wouldn’t be surprised to know that almost all homes from poor one-room tenements to six-bedroom villas already practice some form of recycling. Most Indians engage with this system through their kabaadiwalla. A man comes around once a month, collects old newspapers and magazines that have been piling up, and pays householders to take them off their hands. Irrespective of kabaadiwalla. The going rate is about Rs 5 – Rs 6 per kilo. The kabaadiwalla sells these papers to small businesses who either recycle it into pulp or use it to make products such as paper plates or paper bags.

But paper is far from the only waste that can be recycled. Organic waste from them. Unfortunately, not all of these get picked up or disposed of in a manner that will ensure they reach a recycler.

Also read: Contaminated waste — the epidemic the world is struggling with thanks to Covid-19

The Vasant Kunj case study

To overcome this problem, the residents of B4 in Vasant Kunj, an affluent Delhi neighbourhood, started a novel project. They had a constant problem of overflowing garbage at their local waste dump. Since it was located near the local park, it meant residents avoided the park because of the stench. So, in March 2013, the local RWA came up with a novel approach to end the problem. All residents of the block began segregating their waste into separate wet and dry bins. These bins were collected by local rag-pickers who earned Rs 80 a month per home.

The wet waste was taken to a local plant nursery where it was composted into manure. There, the rag-pickers used the manure to grow chilies, aborigines, tomatoes and mint in pots, which was then given to the residents who participated in the programme.

The dry waste was taken to the local dump, which is now 45–50% less burdened and does not smell. The project currently covers about half the residents and the RWA hopes that, thanks to its success, it will be extended to all resi- dents in the near future.

NCR Waste Matters — A public group on Facebook

A highly motivated and energetic community of volunteers is spreading awareness and taking action on issues of resource optimization, segregation at source, recycling and organic composting. Monica Khanna Gulati, the founder of this brilliant initiative, is bringing together experts and professional agencies, composting at individual, home, and community level.

Also read: Covid has resurrected single-use plastic. Pandemic is turning clock back

The Currency of Garbage

While the Kabaadiwalla system and the pilot project in Vasant Kunj are encouraging, they’re both plagued by the same problem – a lack of scale. However, there is a even nation-wide campaign.

It all begins with a set of three ‘smart’ garbage cans, provided for free to each home by the Smart Waste Corporation or SWC. The green can is for organic waste. The blue can take in recyclables, such as paper, plastics and metals. A third, orange can is reserved for any non-recyclables such as leather, thermocol or synthetic rubber products.

Each can is embedded with a special SIM card that identifies it to the family whose home it belongs to. The SIM card also allows the can to be tracked in transit. For each kilo of recyclable material deposited in these cans, the SWC credits the owner with a certain number of points or cash. These credits can be used at stores to get discounts or special deals, or they can even be used to pay utility bills such as electricity and water.

The segregated garbage is taken into a Zonal Collection Centre (or ZCC) where it is checked and weighed to assess how many points the owner will be credited with.

From there, all recyclable materials are moved to third-party recycling units, a waste-to-energy power plant, or sent to the city landfill.

The SWC is able to credit points or cash to users’ accounts because it will earn substantial sums of revenue from its operations. The largest source of revenue would come from the sale of all recyclable materials to professional recycling companies. If a single kilo of newsprint fetches Rs 6, imagine what a few thousand tons of newsprint each year can fetch. Additional revenues can be earned by selling garbage as fuel to waste-to-energy power plants.

Another major source of revenue would be the garbage cans themselves. Companies can sign up to have their ads displayed on each can. From the companies’ perspective, it would be akin to having three small billboards in every home. What’s more, since the cans are collected and sorted by zones, businesses can advertisement contract could run for one week or even a month. After that it can be replaced by a new advertiser when the cans reach the ZCC.

The ZCC itself will serve many purposes. It will be the central depot and distribution point for all segregated and recyclable garbage that is generated in the area. It will also serve as a store where customers can buy recycled products that were created by processing their own garbage. A visitors’ centre will allow children from neighbourhood schools to study how garbage can be converted into something valuable, helping them appreciate the inherent value of all things.

In effect, you now have an incentive system for the owner to not only dispose of his garbage correctly, but also organize it into recyclable and non-recyclable materials. You would have also created an incentive for private or public–private partnerships to set up a city-wide collection and distribution system of segregated garbage.

Such a system would ensure that all materials are put through their maximum life-cycle. It would rid our cities of garbage, unburden existing landfills, thereby improving health and sanitary conditions, and reduce the demand for hundreds of acres of valuable, vacant land to be converted into a garbage heap.

Also read: You clapped for them as they picked garbage. Respect them and Ambedkar would clap for you

The System in Action

Since waste is now being segregated, your cans at home won’t fill up as fast they used to. This means citizens would not have to prepare their garbage for disposal every day. What’s more, each can would be designed to seal properly with an airtight lid. This way, families would not have to worry about any smell in their house or garbage falling out of the can while it is being moved around.

The garbage collector now comes around every three or four days. And it’s not so bad for him either. Instead of fending for himself, he is now employed by the SWC; a ‘collection agent’ if you will. And since this is now an opportunity for proper employment, you would have an incentive for parents themselves to do this work rather than send their children to work in unsanitary and unhygienic conditions as illegal child labourers.

Every time the garbage is collected from a family’s home, the collection man will replace the full cans with three empty ones. These would also have SIM cards embedded within to identify them as belonging to the same family. The garbage man carries the full cans to his cart and from there to a local, well-maintained and sanitized collection point. From here, larger trucks will carry the full cans to to transport garbage, dropping trails of trash on city roads.

At the ZCC, all the garbage from Mr Malhotra’s home and all other homes in Lajpat Nagar are checked for correctness of segregation. Machines would automatically open the cans, remove the garbage and subject the waste to a simple electronic scan. This machine would be able to check what kind of waste has been deposited in each can and automatically re-sort waste that has not been correctly segregated. The correctly sorted garbage would then be weighed.

This process would eliminate attempts to cheat the system by citizens who add objects such as rocks to try and earn more credits. It would also help in forming a check for citizens who don’t correctly sort their waste. Any improperly sorted garbage would result in negative credits, which is a further incentive to sort waste correctly. Moreover, since the entire process is electronic and automatic, citizens can be assured of not being cheated in any way.

The cover of Goonmeet Singh Chauhan's new bookThis excerpt is from Invertonomics: 8 ideas to transform India published with special permission from HarperCollins. It will be released on SoftCover, ThePrint’s new e-venue to launch select non-fiction books.

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  1. Just wanted to point out a minor spelling issue. In the Vasat Kunj subheading, I guess the author meant aubergines and not aborigines. Great article nonetheless.

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