Bengaluru’s Trash Trail

what happens to waste typically in a city

Yesterday I had the opportunity to go on the Bengaluru Trash Trail, which I’ve been dying to do for a few years now (you can read various accounts of it in the press here, here, here, here, and here. While this journey to follow the trash from your neighbourhood to the various places your trash may journey, really it’s about opening your eyes to a whole new way of seeing and unseeing. To begin, look at the images I took in this first batch below: can you tell which photograph shows home waste and which depicts office waste?

It began close to the Daily Dump office in Indira Nagar where we first encountered 3 of the key players in the waste journey. The first person was the rag picker. There are generally 2 kinds of rag pickers in Bangalore. One is usually on a tricycle with a platform for carrying extra cement sacks full of recyclables and the other tends to carry those sacks on foot. The young men on the tricycles tend to be Bangaladeshi refugees. Both groups of ragpickers sell their goods to the local kabadiwallas (also known as recycle gurus) and get cash for the materials they pick. But the one we saw was pushed away quite quickly because he belongs to the informal sector and right as he passed us two of the main elements of the formal sector came to collect waste: the auto tipper and the compactor. The auto tipper picks up the piles of trash around the neighbourhood (though never all of it–even from a single pile–because it’s almost always too much) and then eventually it is put into a compactor and it is those trucks that finally take the trash to the dump sites.

This part of the story, about the informal and formal sectors, is really the most crucial part of the story. Because it’s really the informal sector that plays the pivotal role in collecting waste and their livelihoods are at stake when we make the formal sector the key to our waste collection. In upper class neighbourhoods like Indira Nagar, as property values increased over the years, fewer people are willing to live next to a kabadiwalla (though, oddly, they’re fine with dumping their rubbish in the street or littering on it–because at least it’s not in their back yard). But it’s at the informal sector where you really see the knowledge about the resources and materials they collect–and the ragpickers and kabadiwallas know enough to realise what’s valuable. The Bangladeshis on the tricycles are organised, too; they have godowns where they can store what they collect and they work in groups. But again as real estate goes up, it becomes less possible for this to happen. For the ragpickers and kabadiwallas, they can earn a good profit to feed their family, but because the margins of profit are so small they can’t scale up their business.

But once the government begins to scale up its collection, it seems like people and small businesses are less interested in making the effort to engage with the informal sector. For example, in the photos above of Empire Restaurant’s waste: how can we connect the restaurant manager with the kabadiwallas or the ragpickers to collect all their plastic water bottles and the like, which will benefit them both? This requires us to think about waste together as a community.

Our next stop was the transfer point, an informal place where people in a neighbourhood dump their trash and where the auto tippers and compactors meet to transfer their waste from one to the other. We also met sweepers here, who are mostly women in Bangalore; they, too, are coming to dump their waste onto the compactors. In my neighbourhood the sweepers till have the trolly cart, which when it was originally designed had 4 separate bins on it for segregation; now, at least in Indira Nagar, there is this one green bin (thanks to the Americans), which are plastic and break easily (note the one in the photos above is already breaking at the bottom) and don’t allow for segregation at all. However, some of the sweepers we met carried separate plastic bags to fill up with recyclables they find so they can also sell them to the kabadiwallas (though now they make less money because it’s harder to collect recyclables this way). The original design was intended for women because it was easier for them to make more money (which goes in to the family coffers) and it was not hard to lift each individual bin on the cart.

There are some people involved in cleaning up Bengaluru who don’t like these transfer points–there is even an app that people are using to try to alert the local authorities about it so they can clean it up. But it can also be looked at in a positive way: this is a place for informal and formal sectors collaborate–where rag pickers and all those collecting can dump and pick as the case may be. Trying to shut such places down only works to shut out the informal sector even more and this seemed to be working much more efficiently than the formal sector does.

Our next stop was the Dry Waste Collection Centre (DWCC), which is something I’m a bit more familiar with because I interact with the one in my neighbourhood regularly. However, now that I have a better understanding of how things in the informal sector work, I now feel that it’s important to make 2 stops: first let the kabadiwalla take what they want from you and then the rest you can take to the DWCC. This particular DWCC in Domlur had a biogas plant (that cost around 1.5 crore to put in), but they don’t have the funds to keep it operational so it’s shut. Apparently all the DWCCs began in partnership with NGOs, and before that it was Jesuit organisations that were working with homeless people who they saw making money off of recycling who began organising these centres.

Our next stop was the City Market where the DWCCs, ragpickers and the kabadiwallas come to sell their goods and each type of waste–which at this stage really is obviously a valuable resource–gets further segregated into subcategories. Here it is really clear how much we waste in Bangalore, especially when looking at all the perfectly good stainless steel utensils and dabbas that have been throw out.

Our next two stops were to Nayandahalli to see what happens to plastic that is bound for recycling. We were able to see further segregation into more categories and then watch the process of it being melted down and then moulded into new plastic items like piggy banks and soap dishes. What was disturbing, to me anyway, was the sense of how ubiquitous cheap, unnecessary plastic is, regardless of whether or not is recycled. On the bus as we headed to our final stop, we were handed samples of Sunchips corn starch bags, which never quite made it to market. A similar plant-based plastic bag alternative is being tested in India now. But the question is this: if we decide that say, cornstarch or potato, is the great alternative to plastic and we must plant it everywhere to keep up the demand, what happens to all the land where we need to grow our food?

Our final destination was a landfill. Well, really, it was more of a city dump because the mixed waste here is not being put into the ground. It’s entirely above ground. The oddest thing to see here was that they were sieving the mixed waste and trying to make compost out of it. And apparently there are farmers who are willing to buy the compost from these guys. I can tell you that I certainly wouldn’t want to eat food that was composted with this foul smelling material, even if the plastic bits were mostly gone. Keep in mind that in this area–where most of south Bangalore dumps its unwanted, discarded refuse–is having such a negative effect on the villages around it that women are unable to breastfeed and, as a result, families are having increasing difficulty marrying their daughters.

So that’s the Bangalore trash trail. It’s got somewhat of a closed loop option embedded in it, but the responsibility is for us, as consumers, to decide whether we want to live in a world where we’re willing to sacrifice the health and well being of us all for the sake of a lot of mindless consumption and discarding.

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