S01E05: Turning Waste to Wealth

Cover image of episode 5 with compost on the ground with the words: turning waste to wealth.

Interview with Keshav Jaini and Savita Hiremath

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Deepika: Okay so you know when we were talking about the Trash Talk Series, in one of our conversations I remember we were discussing garbage and I told you about how I immediately thought about growing up in Gurgaon in the 90s because we had a home composter.

Arpita: Noone had a home composter then Deepika! How did you have one?

Deepika: We were oddballs! But you know my father and one of his close friends Keshav Jaini were experimenting with how to be green and that’s how this composter landed at home. And my grandmother at that time was very upset I remember because for her garbage had to be something that was outside the house. It wasn’t supposed to be indoors and there would always be this tussle about you know of was it inside or outside – and it became this matter of great debate. 

Arpita: But I also remember that you told me that much much later Keshav uncle, your father’s best friend, actually has now converted his entire community to composting – which is quite fabulous and it worked perfectly for us!

Deepika: Yeah and so that’s why I wanted to go meet him and find out how that happened and that’s what brought me Garden Estate in Gurgaon after all these years. 

Keshav: My name is Keshav Jaini, I live in Garden Estate in Gurgaon. This is a complex of 373 houses and flats over 23 acres and we have roughly about 1800 people including all the staff and everything living here.

Arpita: Yeah so 373 households – thats quite a bit! And I remember that we then began exploring who else had been doing community composting at the apartment level – and literally the first outcome of the Google search was Savita who lives in my city – Bangalore!

Deepika: So Savita Hiremath, lives in Yelahanka in Bangalore and she started this website called endlessly green where she’s documented her experiences of community composting and how that happens and she herself has been one of the key people in her society to ensure that community composting takes place so you know I had to go and meet her!

Savita: I am Savita Hiremath and I live in Yelahanka Bangalore which is northern part of the city and my apartment name is Shobha Althea Azalea. It is sort of a suburban area much quieter and greener. Here in our community we have 202 homes. Whole thing is perching on an 8 acre plot. 

Arpita: So this one is in North Bangalore, much smaller in terms of the size of plot and the number of people. 

But you know to begin at the beginning, how did they even begin to get involved in the process of composting at such scales? Do they have some background in these activities?

Deepika: Well it was different things for both of them. I think for Keshav uncle, like he said, he had an inclination towards experimenting with different sorts of ways of living closer to the Earth. At the time be had begun thinking of garbage at the community level when he had his twin daughters.

Keshav Jaini standing in the garden estate collection space with bins full
Keshav Jaini, Gurgaon

Keshav: When my twin daughters were 5 years old, we moved to Garden Estate (GE) and then we realised that even though it was a very clean place, and not many people living there as yet, we realised over time it would start getting dirty. We started a Sunday clean up with my daughters and their friends and we would just go around and pick up a little bit of litter. The idea was not about cleaning up the place, the idea was more in terms of really getting kids to understand that they should not litter. That’s how it started and over the years I got involved with solar work, and got into doing my own composting, my own segregation and wherever I went, I would see litter and wonder why can’t we just find solutions for this.

About 4 years ago I was walking with the president of GE and telling him how I am so environment friendly and I do my own segregation and I do my own composting and he turned around and looks at me and says ‘Whats so great? You’ve got to do it for the community, then it matters.’ Then I started thinking: yeah my impact is too little and if I really want to do something to create a positive impact on the planet, I have to do more than just reduce my negative impact by switching off the light or not using a plastic straw. We have to do a lot more and beyond as an individual to transform yourself and transform your community.

Deepika: And you know at the time, he said it was a really difficult task because how do you convince everybody living in your community that this is something .. a direction to go in. he was quite nervous about that so he went and he met other people who had done it – someone in Bangalore incidentally. He went for a permaculture course and that’s how he began his journey.

Arpita: But what about Savita?

Deepika: Savita had completely different beginnings. She was living at another apartments called Brigade Regency. Back in 2009 when there was a push for segregation there. And you know she was telling me that as a young mother to a young child also working, it was the last thing she wanted to do because it just meant extra work. 

Savita: I got my first lesson in segregation in that community. Believe it or not I was really upset when they started the whole thing, I really thought it was a lot of extra work. I thought who is going to do so much because they were asking us to segregate into 6 categories everyday and that I thought was too much. I started rationalising all my excuses. I have a two year old kid, how am I going to do, I am a working woman and all those things. I must say that just within a week… It was mandatory, so we had to do. So I started doing but I must say that within a week it really was not such a big deal as I thought it would be. Everything started falling in place. I just figured out it takes just one or two seconds of thought to figure where it goes, there were six bins so naturally it was a bit of work. Within a week everybody in the house, we all at home got used to it and we never went wrong with segregation. Thats how this whole thing began. I knew nothing about composting then. 

Then back in Brigade Regency, once they came and gave people packets of compost, to those who were doing some gardening, I had some plants so they gave it to us also so I was like – okay! This was my kitchen waste and this is how it comes back? That was my first impression of such a beautiful looking black compost that they gave. But that’s about it. Then we moved here, we bought a flat in Yelahanka. Then after a couple of months of coming here, I realised that segregation wasn’t going well and it was only done in two categories, which is wrong. But still there was something in place and that was the good thing about it. Segregation was going on but they needed much more to be done because composting setup was not doing well and then some people came to know I have done some work on this segregation and they asked me if I could help with it and so I jumped into it.

But my knowledge was pretty much limited to segregation alone – categories, where it can go, who can buy the segregated waste – all those things I knew. But I knew literally nothing about composting. That was the beginning.

Arpita: So as a Bangalorean I remember why this push for segregation came. So before the 90s, Bangalore was just this sleepy little town and was known as the garden city but post early 90s through the 2000s population went from literally 6 million in 2001 to 10 million in 2011, which is almost a 47% growth in a decade. And I remember in 2012, newspapers were filled with articles on garbage because garbage was literally everywhere. The BBMP was completely out of its depth and it had no way of coping with the kind of copious amounts of garbage that the city was producing. 

Deepika: I remember travelling to Bangalore around that time and the smell of garbage burning at street corner. The kind that coats your tongue and makes the back of your throat itch – it was that smell that I remember from visiting the city then. 

Arpita: So, it finally led to the Municipal Solid Waste (Prohibition of Littering and Regulation of Segregation, Collection, Processing & Disposal) Rules in 2012 and they were notified by the BBMP, the municipal corporation and this gave a lot of the concerned citizens the support they required to push segregation within their communities.

Deepika: Yes, that’s what Savita said gave them something to stand up in their society and RWA’s and say there is a law back this and that’s why we also need to take this work forward. 

Savita sitting in a garden spot.
Savita Hiremath, Bangalore

Savita: you know it was the same time when in 2012 October, the first legislation from BBMP, first of its kind in India – it came out saying that you should segregate at your source and you should also compost. That was the legislation so we and the management committee we used that and said look now we have to start segregating, we have to start composting, all those things. Earlier it was being done into two categories now we started doing 3 categories: one is kitchen waste – anything organic, garden waste also; secondly, dry waste – which includes dry clean plastic paper electronic waste metal waste anything that can be recycled but it should be kept clean; third one is waste that can be incinerated like infected waste, sanitary napkin, diapers, medical waste, hospital waste – all that goes into the last red bin. We didn’t do colour coding back then because it was not in vogue. Now we have a high court ruling on that – two bin one bag ruling. Back then it wasn’t there but still we managed very well. We achieved very high level of segregation, high compliance rate within one week. There were confusions and people would approach me and some other volunteers who were also working with me on this cause. We were in touch with the community with email and WhatsApp- whatever was available back then – all the communication modes we used.

Deepika: In 2015, the Karnataka High Court mandated the “two bins and one bag system” so everyone had to start segregating their waste into three categories.

Arpita: Was it the same for Keshav uncle in Gurgaon though?

Deepika: He didn’t have the advantage of a law so for him it meant getting a bunch of people on board who’d never had to think of their garbage once it left their door because there would be people to come and whisk it away. He had to go from that place to making it something that everybody had to take responsibility for. 

Keshav: When I came back I realised it was not easy to convince 1800 people, how do you do that? So I decided to go by a simple process of doing a pilot project. I discussed it with my President, told him let’s find 20 households, and we’ll do composting and segregation for 20 households – so he gave me the go ahead. We set up the first pilot project, saw it through, realised what are the problems and successes we are getting and then did the whole cycle again once. In a building you have different problems – how you pick up the waste, who picks it up, where does he take it, where will you compost. So all these things came in. While composting also what are the issues you face. 

The other thing I did was to create a lot of awareness since I had been living her for a long time. I met a lot of people and told them that this is what we need to do and we are looking at doing this project. Whoever I could talk to I would talk to them: kids, adults, workers, whoever I could. I told them the pilot is going on in that corner, come see it whenever you get a chance. When the first time we were going to take out the compost, I told everybody to please come and have a look. When black gold came out, people were convinced we were going in the right way. So the pilot was very important part and the second was of course, awareness. The community must be taken together for these things to work. It cannot be driven by one or two people, it has to be driven by the community feeling a sense of involvement and a stake in the whole thing. 

Deepika: They also implemented the 2 bin 1 bag system because without proper segregation the next step of composting isn’t possible.

Keshav: The catch is, unless it’s clean and dry, nobody will do anything with it. It will be thrown in the landfill. So it has to be clean and dry, segregated and stocked. Once you have quantity, you can find a person who will be interested. If you have 2 pieces of plastic bags, nobody will do anything with it, it will just go into the landfill. 

Again, it’s a question of monetary benefit to the waste picker. If there’s money in it, then only he will segregate it at the second source and take it somewhere to sell it. That market keeps fluctuating a lot but if you give him enough quantity, properly segregated then he can possibly do it. But if you make him segregate stuff which is filthy, he will only take what is best which he can sell. Even things which could have been sold if they had been properly segregated and were clean and dry, those he will not touch because the value is not enough for his work. And it’s not fair. We should not have any waste picker going through our filth, our trash. It is our responsibility, and we must do it the correct way.

Arpita: What I find interesting is that in both Keshav uncle and Savita’s narrative – you know it begins with this deep sense of personal responsibility that has then traveled to this place of deep commitment to the community process.

Deepika: And I think that comes across quite strongly because that engagement with is critical; takes energy and effort – you need the support and conviction of the community to take an idea forward. 

But the sense I got from talking to them was that they get a lot of pleasure and joy in doing, both of them almost ecstatic about compost. And I think when you something that would otherwise be going into a landfill being converted to soil – its a pretty heady high. Thats what I really remember feeling when I spoke to both of them. 

Arpita: And I think we’ll have to capture some of this in Part B of this conversation cause its really fantastic the way they’ve thought about it, the way their journey has been traversed. But you know the other question that I had as I was listening to them me and to you was that.. well it just seems all too tidy and neat till now. There must’ve been some resistance cause you know Savita herself had some so what about the community at large?

Deepika: Yeah they did, plenty of them! From being told it was too smelly and too much work, to we don’t have enough space for it, Keshav uncle having to offer to go to people’s houses to tell them he’d train their help if they couldn’t do it. And once you have a society of 300 households doing this theres tonnes of ready compost – what do you do with it? Where does it go? There were all very real questions that they had to deal with in this process.

Keshav: Human beings are what they are and we are not ready for change. Any kind of change is tough and change regarding waste is quite impossible. Couple of issues we faced, they said ‘we cannot tell our maid servants to do it, they will not do it, then who will do it’. So I said, it’s your responsibility, find a solution. and if you can’t do it, I will come and segregate for a week for you and train your maid individually. I got a better response from the maids and the workers in the house than actually the residents because the residents had a feeling that ‘it’s not our job.’ and they don’t want to tell the servants in their house it’s their job to segregate. The sessions with the workers were far more fruitful than the ones I did with the residents. 

The major problem I faced was apathy. Everybody just said, ‘Forget it, it’s not important’ and that what I had to get around. The way I did that was I worked a lot with children and got them involved and they were able to move it further. I’ll tell you an incident. I was walking and wondering, ‘Am I getting anywhere with all this?’ And there was this one young kid, cycling away to glory and he shouted, ‘Keshav uncle, we are segregating, my house is segregating.’ And it started me again. It worked well.

Savita: Mainly, some of the resistance came from people who are neat freaks. We don’t want like this, we don’t want to keep our dry waste for one week or so – it has to be taken out everyday. We are very scared of rats and other rodents attacking the bins kept outside in the corridor for a longtime. All these issues because earlier these were tied up in black plastic bags now no tying, we were very clear no typing it up. Because once you do it you are hiding something. If you keep it in the open you are very sure of your segregation quality and we don’t have to worry about it. Open in the sense you can keep the lid, but it should be taken out easily. So there was resistance but I must say that those who didn’t were in majority. 

Arpita: So I have been composting for a while now too – though at an individual capacity. And I remember, like in your house in the 90s, the first I declared it to my parents that we  were going to compost, they had the same reaction you know. They wondered about the smell, the cleanliness and especially the soldier fly maggots, I think that freaks everyone out – cause I mean, yeah they are not fine to look at and have around but …and there are questions like ‘aren’t we inviting disease into the house?’ But I think the approach that is possibly the approach to take is what Keshav uncle and Savita have shown us – these are challenges to be overcome and not the place where you stop. You just keep going and figure your way around these things. 

Arpita: So an enormous amount of effort to educate and engage the communities right and they are now on board and waste is getting segregated – what happens next?

Deepika: Then the conversation shifts to what do you do with the waste right. You have to identify spaces for it. In GE in Gurgaon they identified an area where these steel wire mesh bins were kept, it was where the wet waste was put in. And next to it was a space to again sort out your newspaper and plastic bottles and adjacent to that was a place to keep the compost. And in Savita’s society again it was space identified under this ramp that leads up to the main driveway where stacks ad stack of compost are kept there. And then of course it comes down to the denizens of the Earth, the microbes, them doing their work and Savita was explaining that quite beautifully.

Savita: It takes many batches of bacteria and fungi to come and do the job, it progresses in a stage by stage manner – it’s like a big orchestra going on there. Certain set of bacterias come in and do the job in the beginning and they are very comfortable at 30-32 degree C and the temperature may go beyond 70 C in that bin. Believe it or not in the core and then it becomes cooler and then the compost is ready. But the announcement that the compost is ready is done is by a halfbreed micro-organism which is half bacteria and half fungi called actinomycetes – that comes and announces through this wonderful smell. It is the same smell that you get to experience when it rains. It’s the same microorganism that works in the soil, same one works in the compost as well. 

Deepika: Her knowledge of the detail and science of composting is fascinating! And it indicates to me the huge effort she’s made in her journey. So Savita worked with an organisation called Reap Benefit to bring efficiency to the system of composting at scale in apartments. 

Arpita: I think it’s what brings this almost poetic quality to her description of compost – because that’s how she experienced it. 

Deepika: But you know the thing is that the more you think of composting and its requirements, it is the microbes which do they work, but in terms of infrastructure requirements its about studying whats available and what space you have and therefore deciding how much to invest or what that cost might be.

Keshav: Most people have a 2 bedroom or 3 bedroom flat. There’s space for eating, living, sleeping, ACs and fancy music systems. This costs a fraction of anything you can imagine. So a composting system for a family will cost anything from Rs 2000 or 3000 and there are professional systems on the market – you can buy them, you can set it up. 

For communities, they can range from Rs 3 lakh to 10 lakh to 20 lakh depending on the size. Depending on the level of machinery and automation you want to buy. Having said that, what we did in GE was a completely natural process. Who does the work of composting? It’s the microbes who do it. It’s not machines, it’s not energy, it’s not electricity that does it. So if you create an atmosphere or an arrangement where you can collect waste and let the microbes do their job, you don’t need to be doing labour – they have to do the labour. In GE set up the simplest system and we spent only Rs 50,000 for our complex. Which is just a set of steel wire mesh bins in which we put in kitchen and horticulture waste which is a combination of carbon and nitrogen and let the microbes do their job and leave it alone. 

Arpita: Hmm. So costs really aren’t very high? 

Deepika: Costs can be anything from Rs. 50,000 to Rs. 8 lakh depending on what you want to invest in but really it’s the microbes that do all the work. More than that it is the belief in the idea and getting it done. 

Keshav: On a daily basis we get anything between 220 to 250kg of kitchen waste. Multiply that by 1000 days because that’s how long we’ve been doing this and you have 250-300 tonnes. 10-15% of that is what you get as compost so you’re looking at 25 tonnes of compost created. This figure keeps changing  – another couple of months and this will be more. The good part is, because we have a lot of horticulture, 80% of the compost goes back to our own greenery, 10% is bought by residents and they have to pay for it. We charge Rs 10/kg for the compost we give them and 10% is reserved for our CSR which is community social responsibility so any park or anyone who wants, we give it to them.

Savita: Once the composting system fell in place, we were doing 100% recycling of the organic waste and we composted whatever we can using whatever infrastructure we have – garden waste included but big branches and all can’t be composted. It calls for industrial setups. So barring that everything was getting composted. All dry waste that came – usually what happens in an urban setting like this: 60-65 % is kitchen waste and another 30-35% is dry waste that is paper plastic, 5-10% which is sanitary waste which needs to be incinerated according to the law but even if you don’t do by then you have taken care of 90-95% of the waste which can be completely recycled. So even if you are sending out the last bit to the landfills, its only 5-10%.  

Initially we started secondary segregation of dry waste, our house keepers would pick up the waste and go downstairs and then segregate into categories and within months I learnt we were doing that into 22-24 categories. Then you come to know so many categories of waste is being generated. And every little bit was nicely kept in separate dabbas and it was such a beautiful sight to see everything sitting neatly in its own place and that fetches value. If you mix dirty plastics with clean plastics, clean plastics lose value no matter what kind of quality it has. So segregation becomes very important to make sure you get value for all the work that you have done. 

People line their bins with 3 plastic bags, one day I did some calculation – one house not sending out plastic bags into 200 households and then it runs its 1000s of plastic bags per year close to 84000 plastic bags. That much you are not bringing into the community from the stores – so much plastic production is stopped, at least we didn’t make use of them. This is how you reduce waste generation. 

Arpita: So these stats are just amazing – 90% recycling, tonnes of waste converted to soil and 22 categories of sorted out dry waste I can’t even wrap my head around, what are these 22 categories, someone needs to list these! I mean don’t know what to admire more – the people or the process!

Deepika: I don’t think you have to pick one, its both really! I didn’t even know you could segregate into so many sections!

Arpita: So the thought that comes to mind is that clearly they’ve been part of these processes for a couple of years now, this has been going on for a couple of years?

Deepika: yeah, for both of them. 

Arpita: Yeah, so the question then is how do you maintain systems like these cause it sounds like it would be really hard for a few people to do this?

Deepika: It is and I think both of them spoke to that and explained how it happens. 

Savita: New volunteers keep coming in and keep writing about what the current issues are and all that, and when segregation levels are low they restart the conversation and all that. But when volunteer commitment is high then clean work is going on. Keep telling my team, level of segregation, quality of composting – all that is going on is directly related to volunteers commitment. If they are committed everything goes on like clockwork. If half hearted approach then it suffers. 

So all communities go through this in a cyclical manner. No one person can do this forever for any community and noone should be doing it actually because it is everybody’s job. Everybody must chip in. It can’t be left to one person just because that person is passionate about it. That’s something I learnt quite late. I realised this is not how you can go about it. You have to develop a certain detachment, let others learn, let others do but you’re fortunate if somebody who matches half the level of your passion and takes things forward but human nature doesn’t work like that. We have different ways of inheriting something and making sure that that inheritance does not suffer losses. But still its okay, whatever thats going on is at a certain level which one should be satisfied with. 

Keshav: In the last couple of years, we’ve not done much by way of actual waste management for kids etc. Things have stabilised to a certain level and we’ve left it alone. It also depends on the kind of the EC, the executive committee and president as to how much they want to enforce these things. If you get the feeling that they are not involved and want to push it, you also tend to take a backseat and go it’s happening and lets not rock the boat too much. Having said that, if things start getting out of hand, people get in touch to say ‘Keshav, this problem is coming in’, so I look into it. I’m not on the board, I’m not really handling this now but because most people understand this is a good thing, the composting is going on very well because its two people working on it and checking with me for it. The segregation is at a slightly slower level because it’s not being enforced enough. Which we’ll get back to. There are always ups and downs in what you do – so it’s a cycle that continues.

Deepika: And you know what struck me was that both Keshav uncle and Savita have played these really central roles in their communities but that shift wouldn’t have happened if there weren’t other people to stand up and become green volunteers, kids sort of encouraging them or holding their hands when they were feeling low about something. 

Arpita: Absolutely! You know the thought the thought that struck me – I was just thinking  what a huge difference it makes if you decentralise a process, particularly for this process of waste segregation and management!

Because when we were Googling a whole lot of stats for this episode we found these amazing crazy numbers like 1500 metric tonnes of solid waste is created by the city of Gurgaon every single day and for Bangalore its 6000 metric tonnes! And that scale you can’t imagine, I mean 600 metric tonnes and you try to compost or segregate – it sounds impossible.

But suddenly you hear Keshav uncle speaking at his apartment level and its about 200 kgs or 300kgs and its doable right, because well they are already doing it, they are showcasing the fact that it can be done, its been converted to compost. 

Maybe the point these stories make so beautifully is that we don’t need to look at the city level in some cases – maybe we need to come more closer home and begin there and that is where change belongs! 

Outro: To know more about different sorts of systems to compost at scale, visit Savita Hiremath’s website at www.savitahiremath.com It’s a comprehensive list of all things composting. Or visit our website www.thecuriocitycollective.org for a list of resources and people you can reach out to in different cities who can share their expertise on how to segregate and compost at scale.

In our next conversation, we’ll dive in deeper to understand what drives Keshav Jaini, Savita Hiremath, and a fellow compost enthusiast Padma Patil, to do the community work they do.