1. What a waste?

Waste is an interesting word, but most of the time it is debatable as well. The meaning of waste varies from context to context. It ranges from small amounts of residuals and leftovers to hazardous and unmanageable dumps that are potentially risking livelihood.

A world before organized human settlements may be visualized as a wasteless world. The leftovers of one being might have been the bed and bread of another. It was a sustainable equilibrium, an ecosystem that is circular, which we may envy to achieve.

The transition of human beings from roaming hunter-gatherers to static agrarian settlements and further urbanization could be the key spoiler of the circular rhythm of mother nature. The localization, decentralization, and movement with the learning of localization create an atmosphere of byproducts and leftovers that are not utilized by the local ecosystem.

The challenges of management of waste are as old as human settlements. The large waste channels of excavated Harapan settlements might have raised our childhood eyebrows. After roaming around the world for many years, we realize that our forefathers were trying to address the basic problem of human settlements. As we conquer the world and occupy every corner of it, the management of waste has grown as a truly global concern, that a local concern of a settlement.

In short, we could redefine waste, as the leftovers that are not useful to the context or a residue that is not generated in a context where it can be utilized. It is something rejected by a context that needs to be managed. Proper realization of waste generation with empathy, categorization, and handling with care, to build a circular ecosystem is key to our sustainable future.

2. The are’s of wisdom

The management of waste, was, is, and will be a key aspect of generations. As ages passed over it, we are lucky to have the wisdom built around this subject. We should be wise enough to watch and vouch for ourselves to benefit from it. Some glimpses of the learnings may be low hanging, the 3 Rs of environment, the 5 Rs of conservation, and the 7 Rs of sustainability. It is worth a while to parse through these overlapping Rs of wisdom.

3 Rs of environment – reduce, reuse, and recycle.

– reduce: not only reduce the generation of residues but also reduce the consumption

– reuse: always look for options to reuse the side effects so that we can contain them

– recycle: the essential leftovers should be meaningfully recycled to make it useful

5 Rs of conservation – refuse, reduce, reuse, repurpose, and recycle

– refuse: we should not consume things that can not be reused or recycled

– reduce: limit the use of environmental resources to the basic needs

– reuse: build a habit of using things that can be used multiple times rather than use-and-throw stuff

– repurpose: before considering anything as a scrap think about other uses for it

– recycle: if it is inevitable to generate garbage, ensure that it is reprocessed to make something useful

7 Rs of sustainability – rethink, repair, recover, remake, refuse, respect, and restore

– rethink: instead of jumping to grab a new buzz, always think whether it is a need

– repair: always give a chance to correct things rather than throwing away stuff that can be corrected

– recover: we should be vigil to the expiry of items to prevent them from becoming unusable

– remake: always look for resources within to remake that looking for new resources

– refuse: it is important to decide that we do not consume items that are of single-use

– respect: practices of the society to be respected, not to generate waste it cannot handle

– restore: lost environment and ecosystems may be restored whenever possible

Though some of these Rs vary from standard ones, they are definitely Rs for our rosy future. The realization of these Rs makes us more responsible. A conviction in these concepts can help us to develop more realistic consumption patterns and waste generation patterns to reject the culture of waste.

3. Waste buckets

Segregation and categorization of the generated waste is a very crucial thing in the management and navigation. Standard and stereotyped waste classification as biodegradable, non-biodegradable, and toxic is not enough. An empathetic detailed classification based on many aspects, including but not limited to, the context of waste generation, its nature, volume, and possibilities of handling is also to be considered while identifying the buckets of waste. Such a realistic and evolving classification, segregation, collection, and processing based on the classification is vital for ensuring a circular economy and nature.

Kerala had witnessed several centralized and decentralized experiments in this regard. In general, the mixed results of these experiments show us that we have to learn a lot in this area. Large landfills or mere processing at source is not practical and realistic in many contexts. As I have highlighted a more empathetic classification could be one of the decisive steps towards a more wholistic are realistic evolving solution. Let us experiment to classify waste in some interesting aspects, to showcase that we have to consider a more flexible and contextual treatment.

Based on the nature of waste generation, let us observe the household waste generation

– food waste: the residue of food, dropouts, leftovers, and so on

– food packets: the cartons, cans, plastic and paper covers, tissues, napkins, and so on

– liquid waste: used and expired oil and detergents, contaminated water, and so on

– medical waste: used and expired pills, medicine, containers, equipment, and so on

– garden waste: leaves, wood, rotten flowers, fruits, snails, dead creatures, and so on

– furniture and utensils: furniture waste, utensils, tools, and so on

– toys and equipment: toys and equipment without electronics, and so on

– electronic and gadgets: televisions, gadgets, kitchen equipment, and so on

– hazardous items: batteries, chemicals, paint residues, and so on

– building debris: tiles, soil, cement, metal parts, and so on

– vehicle: old vehicles, tyres, parts, and so on

– books and study items: notebooks, textbooks, periodicals, pens, pencils, and so on

The list can grow like this. It may be subjective to the nature of the household, consumption methods, lifestyle, and other minute patterns that are very specific. While it may change from house to house, a careful study and evolving adaptation could develop a reactive system that can provide proper standards and guidelines on leftovers.

We could observe that the volume of building debris and to some extent the furniture garbage are not generated frequently. Instead, they may be generated based on events like house renovation or extension. While food waste is frequently generated, the volume may increase if there is an auspicious day around. The volume of the garbage generated and the frequency of the generation, are contextual. The treatment of garbage also changes, the garden waste treatment of summer may be different from winter, for example. The building waste may be transported to a construction site, whereas books and periodicals may be going to libraries, schools, resellers, or recyclers.

Some more specific garbage generation patterns are very local to Indian collaboration patterns. Some of them, we have already started addressing via green protocols

– procession: political and religious groupings

– festivals: generate specific patterns of waste

– events: marriages and get-togethers

The simple, superficial analysis of household garbage is enough to underline the need for detailed classification of garbage. An expert study on many areas such as households, restaurants, and industry, will surely help us to find many more static and dynamic classification problems for us to respond to. A flexible classification is the key to the evolution of a more adaptive system for sustainable navigation and processing of waste.

4. Waste ways

Reliability, consistency, and maintainability of the system are very important aspects of the overall success of any waste management system. The user experience matters a lot for better acceptability of the solution. A poorly designed waste management workflow and execution can only amplify and spread the problem. We will parse through some initiatives to establish the importance of these.

In the past couple of decades, Kerala witnessed large protests against the generalization of landfill approaches. The success of Attingal Municipality achieved in centralized waste management was an inspiration to many. But, the Vilappilsala experiment of Thiruvananthapuram corporation miserably failed. There were many interconnected reasons behind the failure. We could compare both experiments peripherally. The failure of Thiruvananthapuram corporation started from the over-social engineering applied to the waste collection part – the collection bins were replaced by women’s self-help groups, which were not consistent in experience. The collected garbage was piled indefinitely without treatment, due to many conflicts of interest, which led to environmental and livelihood issues. More than the failure, it aired a message of inconsistency and a general feeling of unreliability was spread across.

We have also vigorously campaigned for the treatment of household waste at source. Biogas plants and bio bins were advertised heavily. There were some important maintenance aspects we left unattended during our drive. The bio-slurry or manure generated by such plants was not of any use for many of the urban households. Disposal and maintenance of unused plants became a really serious problem at the ground for the floating population in particular. We could see that consistency, reliability, and maintenance concerns backtracked the campaign a lot.  

The continuation of social engineering experiments, the generation of partisan beneficiaries, and related conflicts of interest are still preventing us from opening our eyes. Again, the poorly equipped women’s self-help groups (Haritha Karma Sena) are dumped with the responsibility of acting on the mess. We could see they are operating with more constraints than opportunities. The garbage collected is sorted and parked on roadsides. Neither good facilities for sorting are provided nor health care precautions are taken on the ground. On top of the inconsistent service, the forced user fee is also envisioned on this drive. The initiative is emerging as a way to provide financial safety to a partisan section of people rather than serving the goals. This clear conflict of interest and related problems may be leading the initiative a partial success.

I have cited the above use cases to emphasize the need for a more reliable, extendable, and maintainable system in place. A very important point related to loosely formed social experiments is that their success highly depends on the education, involvement, interest, and value system of the majority of the parties involved. Only when all these play in tandem the experiment succeed. While we can celebrate the odd successes, they cannot be generalized.

We have reached a point where we can not experiment more, we should be wise enough to learn from other parts of the world and have to specialize the practices for us to build a sustainable system that can ensure a circular economy. The system should be simple and repeatable so that in general it can be adopted and engaged. It should be designed with the viewpoint that there will be stakeholders who will be considering ease of use above anything else.

The success of waste management design will depend on the ease of use, its consistency, and its reliability from in end-user perspective. Its maintainability, contribution to the circular economy, and capability to evolve will be key aspects of its ability to survive.

5. Wise Wasteless World

Many developed countries have already started forming general policy guidelines and have initiated rolling out of specific targets and regulations against them. The emerging practices evolving in countries like The United States, Norway, The Netherlands, and The European Union are worth learning. General surfing on global trends shows that the world is moving away from mere bins, collection hubs, centralized/de-centralized processing, etc.

A small example may be worth mentioning, to highlight the power of some standardization in this regard. The European Union recently took a resolution to enforce type C charging points on all electronic devices. This simple step enables the reuse, reduction of consumption, and garbage of unused chargers.

More importance is to be given to reanimating the resources while sending them to a landfill is treated as the last inevitable option. Household segregation is to be enforced, while processing and collection are contextual. Based on how the items are to be treated, the collection methodologies may be changed. For example, large amounts of construction waste and garden waste may be collected at a static station. A small amount of similar waste may be collected at a local hub.

The focus is to be more holistic on how the circular economy can be ushered. In every phase of consumption and generation, the Rs of environment, conservation, and sustainability are to be thought through. The effectiveness of navigation handling relies on the robustness of empathetic classification the waste management system can exhibit. Specialized treatment based on classification and effective deployment of reuse, remake, and restore abilities is the strength of the system. The ease of use, ease of operation, and ease of adapting are keys to the success of the system.

6. Reference
– https://lap3.nl/service/english/
– https://www.wm.com/us/en/recycle-right/america-recycles-day
– https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veolia_Environmental_Services
– https://lsgkerala.gov.in/system/files/2022-04/Report-2021.pdf
– https://www.earthreminder.com/3rs-of-environment-reduce-reuse-recycle/
– https://www.oslo.kommune.no/english/waste-and-recycling/recycling-in-oslo/
– https://rwsenvironment.eu/subjects/from-waste-resources/national-activities/national-waste/