Trying to make a clean slate

The before photos.
The before photos.
The before photos.
The before photos.

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One of the steps we need to take at school to move forward with a new waste system is to clean out all the old mixed waste (organic/wet and inorganic/dry waste) brick-lined pits that I am told were once built for composting. But given that the bottom is concrete and the sides are brick, it seems not the best model for a compost pit. And it doesn’t seem to have ever been used as one.

Day 1
Day 1

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During fieldwork the past two weeks we started cleaning out the pits–students and one or two teachers. For me it has been a transformative experience. My hope is that having the students–and the odd teacher who comes to see what we’re up to–clean up this waste that we’ve produced, we’ll be teaching everyone about what not to do: mix wet & dry waste. The conversations we’ve had over the past couple of weeks have been amplified by the work we’re doing.

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The past two days, for example, we found fresh organic waste on top of the pit–first cauliflower, bananas, and limes then pomegranate and bhindi. I sent to girls to go house-to-house until we discovered where it was coming from, which we finally did today. The small bucket of organic, kitchen waste was mixed with a plastic bottle cap, a piece of newspaper, and a piece of plastic. We showed her the compost pit–a mere 2 feet away–and explained to her what goes in that pit. The problem is that most people have their maids take out their garbage so they never seem to know precisely where it’s going and it’s quite a struggle to get them to come out to see where we’re asking people to put their dry and wet waste, separately.

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The first pit behind the small children’s hostels (4 of them) took us 1 1/2 week to finish digging to the bottom. We discovered an array of objects in it: a broken sitar, salwar kameez, pillows, letters from parents, Birkenstock shoes, loads of other shoes from chappals to studs, a mattress, pastels, a necklace, bangles, a badminton racket, lots of medicine–even unused still in the packets, pencil pouches, fountain pens, broken statues from puja rooms, paintings, books, calendars, what seemed like an entire chemistry lab, and far too much multi-layered foil packaging, which is utterly unrecyclable.

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It seemed to me that most of the children had a good time cleaning up the pits. And I think we all learned a lot. And the smell wasn’t too bad–mostly it smelled of compost as if the organic waste was trying its best to decompose but all the plastic was refusing to allow it to.

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After a week and a half it was a great thing to finally see the bottom. Now if people can keep it empty until we turn it into a planter for some trees that would be ideal.

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We started on a new pit this week behind the girls’ hostels (including mine). I recently learned that the papama akkas have been putting our segregated house waste (though fortunately it has no wet waste since that goes in our garden’s compost pit) into the brick-lined pit by our house. So one of the photos shows some of my waste, which could have been recycled if it hadn’t been put in this pit where lots of organic waste has been placed. It seems like quite the daunting task to begin to change people’s habits when it comes to garbage. I hope this process helps to clean out people’s minds of their past habits and not only the infrastructure. That way when we finally get our new bins we can really start with a clean slate.

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