Does My Waste Matter?

‘I am just one individual, how can my waste matter?’ Arpita, co-founder TCC, attempts to respond to this question by sharing her experience of working with communities across different cities that live and work next to landfills and feel the health and environmental repercussions of a cities waste and consumption.  

Two sets of footprints, one with the leg and the other with a slipper
What kind of footprint would you rather leave on the planet?

Deonar dumping ground – the oldest and largest dumping ground in India – was the first landfill I ever visited. As a fresh faced social work student, I was interning with Stree Mukti Sanghatana (Women’s Liberation Organisation), an NGO working with women waste-pickers in Mumbai. I had been supporting their work with communities that lived around the dumping ground. 

In the way that informal waste economy and cities work, the landfill had been subsumed on all its sides by communities that made a living from it or were too poor to live elsewhere. Yet it towered over everything like a grand plateau. In 2014, it was reported that it had reached the height of an 18 storey building. Where old cities were built around grand monuments of hope and striving – the city of recent years cowered around this gigantic monument of waste. Women, men and children traversed it end to end, sometimes barefoot, knowing it like the back of their hands, the same gloveless hands that scoured its surface for recyclables fetching them a bare living. Often adults and children I met nonchalantly discussed its landscape like a minefield to be negotiated, the dangers of methane build-ups and fires a constant worry. The dumping ground and the the people around it were inextricably woven into one fabric of a dystopian life that took my 20 year old self by shock then.

Whenever the monsoons of Mumbai heaved down torrentially – the dumping ground entered their lives in even fuller ways. The mountain of waste pouring its potent chemical leachate into the soil and underground water; and runoffs into the homes of the poor. Buckets and brooms in hand, people would push the water out, children would splash through the muck half naked – the repercussions to their health and well-being a constant question hanging unsaid in the air. In the terrible Mumbai floods of 2005, the dumping ground laid its biggest ever siege of their homes. It filled the nooks and corners of the settlement, expanding into the miniscule kitchens and living rooms, vessels and belongings floating up ideally as precious possessions rotted under the thick miasmatic soup of waste runoffs. A woman told me how she spent a few days just sitting on her small kitchen top, toes hovering over the rising water, hoping it would subside. In days to come, I would find lines and lines of dishevelled tired faces, eyes gazing into the distance, hugging the few salvaged possessions – waiting to get even one piece of extra clothing our NGO was able to hand from its donations.   

In the years to come as my development sector jobs called, I moved multiple cities – Bangalore, Ahmedabad; I visited cities across the country for research – and came upon similar scenes again and again. As greater consumption became the guiding light of a well-performing economy and a growing GDP, municipal solid waste problems soared across cities big and small.

Taking Bangalore as an example, the city in 2019 produced 5,757 metric tonnes of garbage per day, up from 2500-3000 tonnes in 2014-15, implying an almost doubling of waste production within a few years. With a 46.68% growth in population within a decade, high incomes and consumption, Bangalore has been struggling with its overwhelming waste problem since a while now. Mavallipura, a village in the outskirts of Bangalore is one of the places which has felt the weight of this stupendous growth and consumption. It was the site of two separate dumping grounds for Bangalore’s garbage and this has led to serious health and environmental hazards for the villagers. Environment Support Group in their 2018 report Bangalore’s Toxic Legacy Intensifies reported how ‘Every time it rained, water percolated through these hillocks of waste, which now spread over 100 acres, and got contaminated and this water flowed out into local wells, ponds, borewells, lakes, etc.’ The report also mentions how villagers noted a wide range of infectious and chronic illnesses ‘that had not seen manifest in local populations in their living memories’, with a much higher disease burden than noted for the region. They also reported ‘high rates of morbidity and mortality in livestock which drank from these water sources directly’.

From Delhi to Hyderabad to smaller municipalities across the country, similar stories of struggle and of health and environmental pollution, abound.  

Re-thinking our consumption and waste

Even if we distance ourselves from these adverse experiences and suffering of communities that are often in no manner responsible for creating this situation, the impact of landfills like those at Mavallipura find their way back to us city-dwellers. The ESG Report mentions how because of the leachate ‘Several streams that fed the Arkavathy river downstream, which is a major drinking water source for Bengaluru, also got contaminated with this discharge from the landfills.’ Similarly, the burning landfills of Delhi add to its already deteriorating quality of air. Eco-systems do not follow imagined human boundaries, they flow as inter-connected systems. Ultimately, the outcomes of our consumption choices and the mismanagement of our waste do come back to us in ways that are lowering our holistic well-being.

The High Court of Karnataka, in response to PILs on the matter of Mavallipura, among many other points in its order, mentioned that ‘those who create waste or pollution are primarily responsible for its disposal’ and ‘Every citizen must be reminded of the fundamental duty to segregate waste at source in order to maintain a clean and healthy environment overall.’ As consumers, very rarely do we see the full cycle of the product that we are consuming. Between the start of a products lifecycle to the end of its leftovers at the landfill or through incineration, there is only a brief moment when we are in touch with it. Yet it is our demand which drives these products to take the shape and form they do. We might not always be aware of this, but our choices play an important part in the cycle of creating and managing waste. 

As individuals, we do have the power to bring change through small actions and choices we make today. Decentralisation is increasingly becoming the one important way in which wastes of different kinds can become manageable. The waste that seems negligible and small in quantity, collected for lakhs of people results in the mountains that we see at landfills. If we begin to change our mindset and take greater responsibility of our own footprint – that mountain of waste will be reduced.

Arpita Joshi is co-founder of The Curio-city Collective.