Waste management and reduction as effective methods for climate change mitigation: Stories from Guwahati city

Article by Trisanki Saikia

On any Sunday morning, you will find a group of motivated youngsters on the banks of the river Brahmaputra in Uzanbazar. These youth are giving their time to a cause most of them feel strongly and know quite a lot about. When I spoke to some of them, I was surprised that they were doing this waste clean up activity on a regular basis for the past couple of months. These Sunday cleanup and waste segregation drives are organised by the local youth collective “Midway Journey”. On registering to be part of the event, I got a message from them asking me to bring a couple of things along – among them a water bottle of my own and my own utensil or cup. This was in an attempt to reduce single waste plastic – something that I would discover the next day was important to many of them.

(In picture: A waste clean up and segregation drive organised by Midway Journey)

On the Sunday I visited the designated site, we got a short introduction to the waste collected in the previous few drives and the different categories we would be segregating them  into – recyclable plastics, compost, non-recyclable etc. The next four hours passed on quickly – with a lot of cleaning, washing and sorting of the garbage. For me, the sheer amount of waste collected from the river bank and the knowledge that so much of it was non-recyclable, was a wake up call to introspect on my own personal consumption and waste generation. I asked Neelakshi Mour – one of the founding members of Midway Journey – what she thought the motivation for the volunteers was – and she affirmed my thoughts that once one acknowledges and sees the problem of waste, it is hard to ignore. For anyone joining the waste clean up, the waste one accumulates becomes a tangible reality.

When I came back from the event, I was put into their WhatsApp group where the discussions of single use plastics and a zero waste lifestyle continued with gusto. The conversations topics ranged from straws to mindful consumption, intersped with facts and passion. 

What concerns most of the volunteers who joined the clean up drive are the growing amounts of non-biodegradable waste and its implications. Urbanization in Indian cities, especially Guwahati is taking place at an unprecedented pace with an influx of population from all the neighboring seven states of Northeastern Region. With rapid urbanization and population influx, Municipal Solid Waste has risen as a major environmental challenge of the urban centers. This is not limited only to Guwahati but also to other major urban areas in India.

(In picture: A municipality dumpster in a Guwahati locality)

Being a hilly region with a complex climate structure, waste management is a serious issue. The way municipal waste is disposed poses a great problem because these rising levels of solid waste also have an effect on the rising levels of greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere that are causing changes in our climate. The production, distribution, and use of products, as well as management of the resulting waste all result in GHG emissions. Waste prevention and recycling are real ways to help mitigate climate change, something the members in the Midway Journey collective are promoting.

What Is the Link Between Solid Waste and Climate Change?

Globally, our current waste management methods, specifically emissions from landfill, account for almost five per cent of total greenhouse gas emissions and 12 percent of methane (CO4) emissions, a greenhouse gas with an impact more than 20 times that of carbon dioxide (CO2).

There is a great potential for addressing emissions by reducing the amount of waste that ends up in a landfill. Globally nearly 70% of our solid waste is landfilled, a meagre 19% is recovered through composting or recycling, the remaining 11% is converted to energy through incineration or other waste-to-energy technologies.

What can we do?

Waste reduction – which includes waste prevention, recycling and composting – helps us both manage the solid wastes we generate as well as reduce greenhouse gas emissions. However, waste generation is so ubiquitous in our everyday life that it is often easy to overlook the damage it causes. Hence, I was even more surprised to see so many young people not only being cognisant of the fact but actively doing something to make a difference. 

Waste management as a potential climate mitigation strategy is a low hanging fruit because much of the necessary methods and technologies already exist. In the words of Shirshendu Sekhar Das – a founding member of the Midway Journey, “The system already exists, we just need to improve it”.  An example is Midway Journey’s “zero dumping of waste” and “zero-waste vegetable market” initiatives at Uzanbazar which will be decentralised waste management systems. According to Shirshendu, the system and infrastructure to make the market zero waste already exists and Midway Journey is merely facilitating and improving it by adding a material recovery system. Similar initiatives could be adopted by the local municipality and citizens where existing infrastructure could be better utilised.

Stories from recycling initiatives in Guwahati city and the challenges

(In picture: Dilip Das, owner of a plastic recycling unit in Guwahati at his factory)

The owner Dilip Das owns a  small recycling unit situated in Lal Ganesh, Guwahati. His unit recycles around 10 tons of plastic a month although they have a monthly capacity of 30 tons. This underutilization is primarily due to two factors – lack of raw materials and market competitiveness. 

(In picture: Workers at the recycling unit sorting and cleaning the plastics)

For small recyclers like Dilip Das, inputs in the form of clean plastic is hard to come in a city which does not segregate its waste instead dumping most of it together in trash bins. These non-segregated plastics have to be cleaned before they could be recycled. Since he does not have the manpower or the required infrastructure to clean the plastics, he can only accept the clean plastics he receives from the stockists who collect these plastics from local kabadiwalas and rag pickers. Midway Journey is currently undertaking an initiative called Power of 300 where they collect plastic waste from around 350 households in the city and deliver this to Dilip Das for recycling. In Power of 300, citizens are asked to clean their milk, cooking oil or similar packets and store them separately. This cleaning at the source makes a huge difference as the packets then can be recycled instead of ending at a dumpster, drain or landfill. 

(In picture: A worker at the recycling unit amidst the plastic to be sorted)

The other problem recyclers like Dilip Das face is an economic one. For small recyclers like him, most of his raw materials come from the informal sector of local kabadiwalas and rag pickers. These people are the heroes of the city recycling system and contribute immensely to a circular economy, yet most of us treat them like beggars and they do not have any formal recognition. Big recyclers, on the other hand, receive the majority of their raw materials from big companies and factories who provide them the plastic waste from their factories and can provide legal invoices for the same which the big recyclers can use to avail GST tax benefits. This gives them a competitive edge in the market as they can sell their recycled products at a lower price, pushing out smaller recyclers who actually recycle the domestic plastic waste from households. A formalisation of the waste economy and some legal recognition of the kabadiwalas and rag pickers will go a long way in encouraging higher quantities being recycled in the city. 

Beyond Plastics – a comprehensive waste approach

Non-biodegradables like plastic is a big problem but even the biodegradable wastes which includes compostable wet waste can be problematic if not managed properly. According to Shirshendu, the biochemical oxygen demand (BOD) levels in the Brahmaputra river is already four times more than what it should be. The assumption is that we can heedlessly throw organic waste into the river without consequences, but the rising BOD levels indicate that the organic waste dumped into the river is increasing its toxicity which is adversely affecting the aquatic ecosystem. Hence, the management of biodegradable waste is also a serious issue, but not given as much importance as plastics and other non – recyclables. In their “zero dumping” project, Midway Journey is engaging with temples, vegetable markets etc to reduce the dumping of these biodegradable wastes into the river. Moreover, the infrastructure requirement for recycling plastic is much higher, hence wet waste management can be a more immediate action. In the longer run though, we need to reflect on our consumption patterns and opt for more sustainable ways of living. 

Waste reduction at the household level

A mindset or lifestyle of necessary consumption rather than the currently dominant excessive consumption is a straightforward solution. If there is less generation of waste, there is less waste to manage. Zero waste is a set of principles focused on waste prevention that encourages reduced consumption and redesign of resource life cycles so that all products are reused. The goal is for no trash to be sent to landfills, incinerators or any water bodies.

Neelakshi Mour believes that recycling can be an easy entry point but reducing waste is the way to go forward. She and many of her teammates have already implemented a zero-waste lifestyle. She is someone who always carries her own water bottle and utensils with her, does her own wet waste composting at home and in general tries to generate minimal waste. We spoke about how she struggled with the assumed futility of individual effort in the beginning but one day she and a few of her friends calculated the waste each of them would have generated if they would not have adopted a zero waste lifestyle, and the numbers were incredible. The one less plastic bottle we use in a single day might not be much, but over a lifetime it adds up. If more of us adopted such a mindset, the numbers can make a difference to the roughly 600 tons of waste generated by the city daily. 

The couple of dozen odd youngsters involved with Midway Journey as well as some other initiatives and individuals, though appreciable, would not make a difference at a macro level. For this, a larger institutional push on the part of the state and more widespread behavioural change in the citizens is necessary for any sizable impact. More than 80% of the plastics are not even recyclable, hence the use of plastics should be avoided as much as possible. Recycling is comparatively easier to implement as we still use the immensely convenient plastics and generate other wastes, but a more sustainable solution is reducing the waste in our lives – and if anyone in the city needs motivation and inspiration I suggest a visit to Uzanbazar on a Sunday morning. 

This story is produced under the Bulbul Media Fellowship supported by TERI and Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

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