Up Close and Personal
I ranked the waste management organizations highest when it came time to make my preference list for GCIL. Waste management is an issue that we must disseminate on our path towards addressing climate change. Sitting comfortably at my desk in Seattle, I thought logically about how knowledge of the fate of our trash would round out my curriculum in other environmental engineering topics. Fast forward three months and I’m walking in sandals in India over bits and pieces of mixed waste with flies buzzing around my ankles to watch a waste segregator scoop up piles of food waste as high as his knees. No amount of pictures or papers could have prepared me for this.
The Seattle trash system designates all contents of the black curbside bin as landfill bound. Household waste segregation is encouraged, but no fines are given for failure to do so and monitoring is nonexistent. Here in Bangalore, waste is separated into dry waste (recyclables) reject waste (landfill bound) and wet waste (compost). Dry waste is manually sorted through upon pickup for accuracy to ensure that recyclables don't get soiled. It then goes to a center where people manually separate recyclable items into dozens of categories, which include grades of plastic that aren't even deemed recyclable in the US. Only that which cannot be recycled is sent to a landfill, or a cement plant for incineration. India’s waste is typically 60% food waste, a figure much higher than the US’s, and through this process of meticulous segregation, nearly 90% of waste is diverted from the landfill.
It’s easy for me to look at men and women crouched amid piles of garbage bags picking each piece of waste up with bare hands and think about how much more efficient a centralized garbage collection system like ours would be. The benefit of this alternate methodology however, is that the recyclables are meticulously set aside to be made into new products whereas in the US we send heaps of unnecessary waste to landfills. The future lays in a circular economy and India’s waste management system is more in line with that than ours, even if it may look rudimentary at first glance.
Something that struck me on a site visit recently was the juxtaposition between the looming high rise apartment buildings housing Electronic City’s tech workers and the reality of the waste management facility that I stood in below it. The facility will soon be relocated because citizens dislike the unsightliness it brings to the neighborhood. This reminds me of our tendency in the States to desire trash to be out of sight and out of mind. If we were to be personally responsible for the disposal of every item we threw in the trash bin, would we change our ways?
I consider myself an environmentally conscious person, yet I have personally contributed countless items to Bangalore's waste management system during my eight weeks here. Being given the opportunity to tour many facilities that process waste has shown me the other side of the neatly lined up curbside bins I have back home. I, too, fall victim to tossing wrappers in the trash bin absentmindedly, but seeing the life cycle each piece of waste has beyond this act puts things into perspective.