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Going “Garbage-free” is Not Easy in Bangalore

Published 04/15/2014 by Global Communities

Going “Garbage-free” is Not Easy in Bangalore
This article was originally published on citiscope
BANGALORE, India — This week, Citiscope reported on a program here that is turning waste-pickers into recycling managers. All 196 of Bangalore’s wards are due to get dry waste sorting centers, where people who used to ply landfills for trash with recyclable value can do the work in more healthful conditions.
It’s all part of a big change in how Bangalore thinks about its trash, something that other fast-growing cities around the world may find instructive as they wrestle with their own waste problems. All garbage in Bangalore used to be hauled by truck out to landfills on the edge of the city. But in 2012, residents near those landfills revolted, turning away the trucks and forcing trash to pile up in the city.
Bangalore’s response is a multi-pronged initiative called Kasa-Muktha, which means “Garbage-Free” in the local Kannada language. It’s moving away from a centralized model of waste disposal, where all waste is hauled out of the city. In its place is is a more decentralized system, with the waste largely recycled or burned at the neighborhood level.
Sorting difficulties
It hasn’t been a simple transition. The biggest trouble is that that new system requires people and businesses to sort their “wet” waste (food and organic matter) in a separate bin from their “dry waste” (paper, plastic, glass, wrappers, etc.) Residents have been slow to catch on, as they are habituated to putting all their kitchen waste into plastic bags.
Efforts to change the culture through a “one house, two bins” campaign haven’t worked. Purushottam, who manages a recycling center run by an NGO called Saahas in the upmarket Koramangala area, says they have even demonstrated to local residents how a wet waste bin can be lined with an old newspaper to make it easier to clean after it is emptied, to no avail.
But the days of cajoling are numbered, says the city corporation’s joint commissioner for health and solid waste management, K C Yatish Kumar. The new Municipal Solid Waste Rules empower him to impose fines on those who don’t segregate their waste, and he intends to exercise that power. The corporation could also instruct municipal workers not to accept mixed waste on their garbage collection rounds.
Dangerous waste
Many hazardous substances are still turning up in the waste meant for recycling. Bangalore is an IT hub, and electronics form a major waste stream that needs to be separated and handled with kid gloves. The concept of “branded litter” — to force big producers of electronic goods to take back their own waste — has thus gained currency.
More odious for the waste-pickers working out of the new recycling centers is the presence of sanitary napkins in dry waste. Now, an awareness campaign has begun to create a separate waste stream of sanitary napkins. In just one of Bangalore’s 196 wards, 1.2 tons of it was collected during such a drive.
Then there is the problem of waste that has little recycling value. The dry waste centers are becoming creative about finding some uses. Mary Fernandes, project manager for the NGO Global Communities in India, points to one recycling center had made its own roof out of used Tetra Pak, a material used in cartons. The center now supplies the material to a company making recycled furniture. Tetra Pak otherwise has few buyers in the scrap market.
Re-aligning incentives
One of the biggest challenges is the waste collectors. In Bangalore’s previous waste collection model, garbage contractors were paid by the amount of garbage they transported and the distance they covered. “Naturally, the powerful transport lobby did all it could to trip up the segregation and recycling plans,” says Nalini Shekar, co-founder of the waste-pickers association Hasirudala.
Some of these waste contracts are still in place. That gives front-line garbage collectors an incentive to short-circuit the recycling system by remixing the segregated waste and dispatching it to landfills. City corporation commissioner Lakshmi Narayan maintains that these are simply the teething troubles of a new program: “If some pourakarmikas (municipal workers) continue to mix waste, that is because the dry waste centers are not yet functional in that area.”
The city is signing new deals with the contractors, to pay them not by the amount they transport to landfills but by the men and material they provide in making the new system work. These new contracts are currently in place in 55 out of the 196 city wards. Contractors there have replaced some of their garbage trucks with auto-rickshaws (three-wheelers) to take the dry waste to the recycling centers.
All of this could be undermined to a degree if the city decides to go in a completely different direction. Some are pushing to build waste-to-energy plants that would burn all waste, wet and dry. Brian English, director of program innovation at Global Communities, which had taken the lead in advocating the formal use of Bangalore’s large community of waste-pickers for recycling, strikes a pragmatic note: “I think it’s possible to imagine decentralized recycling centers operating in the same cities with waste-to-energy systems,” English says. “This happens in many countries. Given the growing volumes of waste, it makes sense to have a multi-pronged approach.”