Thanks to the current lockdown/unlock version (I have lost track of what exactly Pune city is going through), there are days when the only person I see at the door is the domestic trash collector. It is the same mundane routine – scuttle sleepily to the trash bins when he rings the doorbell, hand them over to him, wait till he dumps it all in a bin, and take the empty bins back. But today, he did something that startled me.
He segregated the trash.
I stared at him slightly open-mouthed as he checked the contents of each bin nonchalantly before dumping them into either of the two bins he was carrying. It was the end of my two-year-old plastic adventure.
Dabbling in the field of water conflicts and cooperation sensitized me to the harm we humans were causing to Mother Nature, but it did not inspire me to take up activism towards any environmental cause.
Yet, in 2018, things changed. The buzz around plastic pollution, growing since early 2018, stirred me up. Disturbing images of swathes of plastic in at the roadside and on various beaches filled my news feed, and I cringed at stories of poor animals and fish succumbing to increasing proportions of plastic in their food.
Finally, the combination of plastic-infested Ganga and Indus rivers, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, and the plastic ban initiated by Govt. of Maharashtra in March 2018 convinced me to take up this environmental cause, albeit in personal capacity.
Charity begins at home, so I first took a quick review of what we practiced as a family. We were segregating waste alright, and instead of dumping, we were using and reusing as many plastic bags as possible. Then I looked at step two, the waste pickup service at our doorstep, and that confirmed the fear I had all along – they were indeed mixing back the waste we had so meticulously segregated before taking it away.
Idealists would envision a scenario in which I walk up to the waste collector and convince him of the merits of waste segregation, thus righting a wrong in the world of environmentalism. Being more pragmatic, I knew it wouldn’t work. Instead, I decided to stock up on all the single-use plastic that came into our house, segregate it into reusable, un-reusable, and too-threadbare-to-be-reusable, and find a sustainable, eco-friendly way to dispose off the plastic from the last two categories.
And so, the stocking up began. I was very vigilant of every piece of plastic that came in. I organised plastic bags as per their size and carrying capacity. I washed the ones which carried ‘wet’ products – such as milk, pickles, ketchup etc. – and dried them in the sun before storing them for use or throw. I bought bags of cloth and paper for grocery shopping and delegated a steel dabba for buying certain items such as curds and paneer.
A fan of systematizing processes, I set up a system regulating the journey of plastic in and out of the house and won over the family’s support for it. I also set out instructions for the cook and cleaner and supervised diligently till both of them completely adapted to the new system. In a month, I had accumulated a cupboard full of plastic, waiting to be disposed off in a sustainable, eco-friendly manner. All I needed now was a place to give it away.
This is where the misadventure began.
Our everyday trash collector walked off with a curt, dismissive ‘no’ (deep down, I knew that, but I wanted to leave no stone unturned). I approached a few local raddiwalas, but they were not particularly cooperative either; one didn’t know any plastic recycling facility, another found the quantity too small, another just didn’t want to take it.
Then, I took to the Internet and a few local recycling centres popped up. I called the one closest to my house. After a couple of attempts, a lady answered. I explained to her that I had all this plastic in my house, and I wanted to give it away for recycling. She asked for my address and I gave her my coordinates.
“Oh, too bad, we already finished our collection round in your area two days back,” she said.
“No problem,” I replied. “I’ll come to your collection centre to drop it off.”
“Oh no, you cannot do that, we do not allow people to bring their plastic directly to the centre without checking the entire stock first.”
They could have checked (and rejected) the stock on their premises too, but fair enough.
“Okay,” I said, “Where’s your next round of collection then? I’ll come to meet you there.” I didn’t mind travelling across the city, so I offered to show up at their next round.
Apparently, she did. “I’ll let you know when we come to your area next time.” She hung up.
Something told me that call was never going to come, so I dialled the next phone number. That turned out to be a bummer as well as they had stopped collecting plastic altogether. The third phone number I tried was out of service. The fourth phone number belonged to a place that had too many complicated specifications of what they accepted and didn’t, so I simply dropped the idea of calling them. The fifth were in Pimpri-Chinchwad, active and willing, but refused to take the plastic when they found I was ‘too far away’ – never mind my offer to drop it off.
This entire plastic mission of mine was not going as smoothly as I imagined. I asked a few environmental enthusiasts in my circle, but they didn’t know anyone who would take the plastic. Instead, I found myself explaining why I couldn’t ‘educate’ the daily collector to segregate trash and learnt some more about the apathy of ordinary citizens towards environmental degradation.
And then, the thing I feared the most happened. Cockroaches started crawling through the plastic that was waiting to be dumped. At first, there were just one or two, tiny ones, scurrying under the kitchen sink. It took me a day or two (most of it went in garnering the courage to inspect) to realise the full extent of the cockroach infestation which was happening in the depths of my kitchen.
I panicked and moved the bundle of plastic out to the terrace. While we had substantially reduced the inflow of plastic, there were certain areas in which we couldn’t avoid it, such as packed foods and milk, and the mountain kept growing. Fortunately, our cleaner helped relieve some of the burden; she knew someone who bought milk bags – and for some reason, only milk bags – so she offered to take them away.
Days and weeks passed, and my efforts at locating a recycling centre waned. There was a brief spurt when Maharashtra government’s ban was officially enforced in June 2018, and I tried to re-contact some of the centres I had spoken to, but in vain. My family’s patience was running out and so was my inspiration. The bundle, meanwhile, kept growing.
One fine day, while googling something completely unrelated, I chanced upon a new plastic collection and recycling NGO. Without batting an eyelid, I called them up and before we knew it, husband and I were on the way to their segregation unit with our now mammoth-like mountain of plastic.
The lady there was cordial; she helped us unload the plastic and apologised that she would not be able to pay us for it. It wasn’t a big deal for us, but she went on.
“… in fact, the ragpickers we work with are going to be pretty miffed. Segregating plastic from trash earns them extra money. Until the municipal corporation improves their employment status and income, segregating trash at our end isn’t helping them.”
I stared at her for a second and we left. Next morning onwards, we started dumping plastic in the dry trash bin. Our daily trash collector continued to mix it with wet trash, but I let it go; it was going to contribute to paying for a ragpicker’s food, clothing, or shelter.
The entire situation had many aspects – environmental, socio-economic, of policy and governance, and even opportunistic. Some of them were (and are being) researched and spoken about. Throughout my engagement with environmentalism, I have not come across concrete, systematic solutions to deal with the problems I faced. Perhaps what I faced was due to my own inadequacies – of knowledge, persuasive skills, efficiency, and determination to persist. But, given the complexities and limited resources in an ordinary Indian’s life, aren’t these legitimate constraints?
There might be many such similar stories. Do environmental researchers, advocates and activists find them worth analysing and solving? Frankly, I hesitate to ask. However, if they are keen on increasing citizen awareness and participation, they should take these issues seriously. If not, well, at least the ragpicker makes an extra buck.
Gauri Noolkar-Oak is a transboundary water conflicts researcher and has studied river basins in the Middle East, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. She is also the Founder of Lokmaanya.
The views and opinions expressed in the above article belong to the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official opinion, policy or position of Lokmaanya.