S01E04: Trashing The Waste Mindset

A bunch of composting boxes with the text underneath that says: Trashing the waste mindset.

Interview with Poonam Bir Kasturi – Founder, Daily Dump

Arpita: I remember walking down the Gulmohar lined streets of Indiranagar and as soon as we entered the Daily Dump office I kind of really liked the vibe of the place! Its entrance had a large yakshi statue that we confused for a a tree cause it had a vine twisted about it and it stood midst this really sweet wild little garden and strewn around were all forms and sizes of Daily Dump’s composting products packaged and ready to be on their way all around the city. 

Deepika: Yes, that office was just thrumming with activity! And you know, I was looking forward to this conversation because it’s the first interview you and I have done together and also because we both have a personal connection to Daily Dump. My sister studied under its founder and I know last year you gifted yourself a Daily Dump composter for your birthday! 

Arpita: Yes, an extension to my ever growing composting gear! So, we were there to interview Poonam Bir Kasturi who actually founded Daily Dump in 2006. It’s a social enterprise based out of Bangalore and the idea was to find design solutions to the escalating problem of garbage that has been affecting all the city. She’s a really vibrant, interesting warm person and she’s done so many things – shes been a founding faculty of the Srishti School of Design, she was also awarded the Social Entrepreneur of the Year in 2016 by the Schwab Foundation and the Smart Cities India Awards for Decentralised Waste Management in 2016 amongst so many other awards!

Deepika: Yeah, that’s a pretty long list! And you know, after going for beach clean ups in Mumbai and just looking at the sheer volume of waste cities are generating I met people at the beach and they were saying after looking at what they saw there went home and were reassessing all the things in their own house because they saw the same things on the beach – and thats the conversation we had in our last episode so it felt fitting to reach out to Daily Dump and visit them because its really about looking at how do you find solutions to these big problems and that’s what our trash talk series is looking to explore, and Poonam’s a pioneer in that regard and is doing so much work in this field.

Poonam: Hi, I am Poonam Bir Kasturi, I’ve trained as an industrial designer. I passed out of the National Institute of Design in 1984 and people say why am I doing what I’m doing right now? The short answer to that question is that I never planned this right? It was a series of unfortunate or fortunate circumstances and events that happened that led me here. Having said that I think that I would not have been doing anything else because I was, I am and I continue to be deeply interested in seeing how design can actually engage with what people call messy problems, larger problems. Where you feel my god one person – what can that person do? 

Deepika: You know the question that she asks what can one person do – it feels really central to this series in terms of what is individual action and how is it significant and what can you do? 

Poonam Bir Kasturi posing in her garden with a cup in her hand.

Arpita: Yeah, I mean we have both have been studying and working in the development sector for the past decade and more and it’s a question that we’ve found really no simple answer to. 

Deepika: That’s what made me curious about her journey and how she’s responding to that question and what is her relationship with waste that’s led her here. 

Poonam: Waste has been a part of my life for a long time it seems because my first design project in NID was on a landfill site. So I lived in a landfill site for three weeks and it was very interesting at that time. I was trying to say okay, it was a systems design project. So and we were just one and a half years into NID and we were very raw, you are very naive you thought you could change the world and with all that kind of energy when you’re young no and it was a great experience and I think that seems to have stayed with me because I’ve always been interested in seeing again how can design engage with large issues? When I started teaching that was the time I learned a lot and I ended up reading a lot on sustainability, meeting very interesting people, seeing interesting projects and it was at that time I said, enough talk, I need to do. That’s when I started my Daily Dump.

At that time we knew.. I mean even today it’s still the same. In lots of places where waste is not my job, waste is dirty. There’s a social stigma to waste. If you are educated you will not touch waste, if you are you know richer you will not be bothered about ways to be.. you are more bothered about cultural things like museums and art, having a world-view, but you will create waste, you know, so your relationship waste is is a difficult one. 

Deepika: You know both of us have been working with people who live in and around garbage dumping grounds and survive on it for their livelihood. 

Arpita: Well even the same one – Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai. Which is actually one of the oldest dumping grounds in India. And I remember the first time I went there, you know I thought – dumping ground, its got to be a hole in the ground but instead what I found, what I saw this gigantic heap, I mean it was a plateau actually. And at some point of time I remember reading that it was as high as an 18 storey high building. 

Deepika: I remember my tour of sorts and it was by this 14 year old boy who was showing me around and exactly as you described, you know he pointed to it and said its a ‘kachre ka pahad’ which is what it is – it is a mountain of waste. You know and then he was showing me the bottom of his feet and you it was cut by glass because he goes out there in rubber chappals and theres broken syringes and glass bottles and just really harmful substances and then he was pointing to the fires that start because of the build up of methane because of so much of waste and you know the air is always toxic there. There are run offs during the monsoon and you see kids as young as seven and eight going up there to sort and segregate and recycle this waste that they have never even generated.

Arpita: A significant part of recycling in India is still taking place within these spaces..often its the poor and the marginalised who are doing this in unstructured and dangerous work conditions. And I think this is the deep tragedy which Poonam is trying to point to.. which is so reflective of how caste and class issues really complicate our relationship with garbage. And I remember thinking of this even when I came across this report by the Boston Consulting Group which was speaking to the consumption in India – it actually said that consumption currently is being fuelled by those in the Rs 5-20 lakh per annum income bracket. And yet like we are speaking, I mean, it is the extremely poor and marginalised who have to deal with the consequences of the waste generated from that consumption process.. and meanwhile consumption in cities is growing even encouraged. Poonam shared how this has been happening in Bangalore over the years.

Poonam: I think 2006 we were looking at two thousand eight hundred kilos…. 3,800 tons to 2,500 tons. Now the figures are four and a half to six some people say so that’s the growth rate in last 13 years and the density of the city has tripled almost. The composition of waste has just completely changed. 

So when you look at a dustbin in volume, the volumes have changed. So the 60 percent weight of organic waste somewhat remains the same. Yeah, because even if you’re not cooking at home, you’re buying a lot of Swiggy food and you’re buying take in and you know you end up there’s a lot of food waste when you eat like that and people aren’t aware of it. It’s the other component that has become four times more. So if that was 25% in weight that still continues to be about 30% weight, but the volumes are become much larger because there’s a lot more packaging. 

The packaging lots of plastic lots and lots of plastic… lots of takeaway containers. Lots of… everybody’s into this packaging, right? It should look nice on the shelf. You should have the unboxing experience or whatever it’s called and so there are layers and layers and layers that hide that damn product and on one side it’s also about barriers and food safety and security and shelf life. The fact is that you’re traveling so many more miles. The thing that’s made on day one is being consumed on day three hundred. 

Deepika: You know when Poonam was talking about packaging and the unboxing experience and all that and I immediately thought of Mumbai.. so many grocery stores have everything like individual watermelons in their own little plastic.

Arpita: Banana’s have their own little cover, their peel!

Deepika: Exactly! So do coconuts, so do watermelons – and I am looking at them and wondering why! You know it makes you question like is there an association of plastic with hygiene or sanitation and that’s why its used – but you know where it ends up and you know what its doing so the two just don’t fit together. 

Arpita: And this is the change in the nature of the garbage that Poonam is speaking about that is really worrying. Because with organic waste there is some notion of eventual decay but plastic bags take more than 400 years to break down and then you still have the issue of microplastics right? We have found no solution to this problem of plastic and yet we are generating so much plastic on a daily basis.

Poonam: When we when we used to go to the landfill in 2006 a lot of the material was organic and it would bring down the weight of that whole landfill a lot. Now we’re finding the mountains and mountains of plastic and when we go now and it’s a case, I find.. and Blore is full of these IT things na so when you go into a closed office in an air conditioned office, no natural light, you’re in front of a computer you have coffee on call, you’ve cold coffee on call or you have lipstick on call … whatever you have on call. 

You literally live in a bubble. You go out and you’re in manicured lawns. There’s water sprinklers. All of it is taken care of. You drive okay through some shitty traffic and you reach home… But again there you have made enough money so everything is like closed right? You’re not aware of the amount of mess that is accumulating because of the choices you’re making, you’re not aware. Even in… we go for these, you know, these workshops in IT spaces and these big corporate offices I have actually seen people just drop things into a dustbin like it doesn’t matter. My whole thing is when is it going to matter?

Deepika: I’ve been thinking about the idea of what ‘convenience’ implies, you know just how easy it to buy and throw things away and not really think about where its ending up. Especially when I think of conferences and…just every single conference I have gone to  you see those tiny little mineral water bottles at every place – two sips and its over and you’ve to toss it away and add to that plastic cutlery, plates and single use packaging material. Half of that you can’t even recycle because its thrown away dirty and its completely useless. 

Arpita: And Bangalore like Poonam was just saying, estimated production of garbage per day is almost 6000 MT – which is huge. Bangalore tried to undertake a ban on single use plastics in 2016 yet it is still struggling with the problem. Its been really difficult to contain the use and  implementing the ban has been really difficult.

Poonam: I had taken my team on a trash trail this Saturday and when you go to a dry waste collection center you go to a dump yard, you’ll find that very same thing that looks beautiful on the shelf, looks beautiful in an ad, it looks beautiful in the actresses mouth or hip or hand or whatever – that’s lying on the floor. We have all of these things and you don’t ever see it like that.

You know, I think that there’s or if we can’t stop this plastic, I think there should be a mandatory rule that whatever you’re selling you sell it with the picture. It’s like the tobacco warning right? You sell that and you sell it how it looks in a landfill. And I have a feeling people will stop buying so much. Because they have to see it at its end. That same thing. It can’t be you know, anonymous bottle – that doesn’t work. It has to have the same brand. It has to have that same color. It has to have the same size and it should be there at the landfill. I suspect people will start saying- My god doesn’t look so cool after all does it?

Arpita: It is problem of invisibility of our consumption, of the fact that we loose sight of the product beyond our immediate use that Poonam was somehow trying to address through her prototype of the home composter. Basically, trying to reduce the distance between the waste and individual – so that you can again begin to see, touch, feel and engage with the outcomes of your consumption.

Deepika: I have a really close friend who works in advertising and she always jokes ‘I’m off to sell people things they don’t need’ and it is really that isn’t it – you don’t really see the consequence of our choices and where that’s ending up because you only see it in its beautifully packaged form in the beginning. And I think that’s also why its so easy to pretend because you don’t look at it at that end of spectrum and thats what DD is trying to do in bringing about a change in the mindset on how you look at your waste.

Poonam: Daily Dump people often say is that we are a waste management company, but we like to think of ourselves as a mindset changing company. We believe we’ve designed the set of products and services and awareness material – this allows everybody to participate in engaging with our natural resources, which we feel is a very important part of urban life and the more we get people to engage with nature and the way nature works for us, we feel we will have more sustainable cities. We’ll have more wellbeing, we’ll have more justice. We will have more time to play and of course we’ll have good health because everything will be clean, it won’t be polluted. That’s the ideal sense of where we’d like to think that Daily Dump is working for. So it’s at a more practical end its a set of products and services which you can use and because you use them you are either reducing the waste that you sent to landfill, when you use them you are reducing your plastic use that we use everyday, using them or reading stories from us you are becoming aware of some issue that was not presented to you before in this way. So that’s the practical side, on the other more abstract side we like to believe this is an experiment and we hope that will inspire other people to do the same things in their lives. 

Arpita: So its because of her background in design that Poonam’s approach is that of design thinking. We decided to ask Poonam to explain it a little further and how she’s applied it in the case of waste management.

Poonam: I think at the core design thinking is about how much you can listen. And listen to what really is there instead of all your biases kicking in and how much your homework you do to find out how many people are walking down that path before. I call my composter a prototype, you know, it was a prototype. I put it out there in the world and the world reacted to it and it took its own form and it reacted to it. There was an interplay and from that a new way of doing the same old thing emerged. So it’s like you’re doing things you don’t stop doing things. But can you do something differently? 

Design allows you to create a prototype to be able to get people to think about it because otherwise you can’t imagine right…You can’t even imagine. I used to tell people we can do this at home. This is what a composter is. Everybody said what nonsense is this and not going to work but when you put something out there and then people have something tangible to talk about, touch, feel react to, criticize or like – either way, doesn’t matter – that’s what design thinking is.

Deepika: So its basically a creative problem solving tool which actually puts the focus on the human need behind the creation of any product. 

Arpita: Yeah, and it was this approach that resulted in their first and most iconic product –  Daily Dump khamba!

Deepika: Yeah, it really is iconic product and Poonam was saying it has been showcased at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London! I know so many people who might not even know the company but are actually familiar with the khamba! Poonam was saying they’ve been tracking and they’ve been able to map 80 clones all over the world – including one in Islamabad that calls itself Dump Daily! She was joking how its now taken a life of its own – so much so its becomes its own person. And she was actually explaining what the khamba is.

Poonam: The khamba was India’s first home composter made by potter communities. Somebody said it looks like a tiffin dabba, three part tiffin box, right… Indian tiffin box. Its a set of three units each independent.. but the first and second unit. They all sit on top of each, other first and second unit they keep interchanging and the last unit is the maturation chamber. You start by putting your organic waste and our special powder the powder ensures that there’s no foul odor and you have no hassle of shifting and turning and spending time because everybody’s very busy these days. So all you do is you dump your waste and you dump the powder over it every day. So you do that daily and then nature takes over the micro-organisms kick up and the environment is that because the terracotta is ideal for absorbing the leachate. 

Decomposition is an exothermic reaction, it generates heat, it releases water and carbon di oxide.  And all this happens within the terracotta in this beautiful way. And you don’t have any foul odour and you keep dumping and after the first chamber is full you interchange it with the centre – the centre goes on top. You do the same thing, after that is full you take the stuff that was in unit A, you empty it into C which is your maturation chamber and you take it up. So A and B keep interchanging. When C fills up you know its ready, you take it out and harvest.  

People say oh god, I don’t have a garden. I’m not …what’ll I do with it man? Such a… that’s the first thing when you get that material to see what was smelly, it was rotten you thought it was waste has become this wonderful sweet smelling thing. So yeah, that’s a first, you know thing that hits you saying my god this happens and then you take it to a tree, a nearby tree and drop it say hello to the tree that will then become your second point of reconnection with nature. That’s what we say.

Deepika: As Poonam was talking, I was reminded of these lines by Mary Oliver: 
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

Arpita: That’s one of my favorite poems but you want to say why you were reminded of it?

Deepika: I think when she says, family of things it points again to how we all belong to the planet in so many ways – recognising our own needs as one among so many species and that wider sense of interconnection that it speaks to.

Poonam: Of course, it’s very hard to convert even now because people like the idea but they’re very scared to put it as a daily practice. They think it’d take too much time. It’ll definitely smell, definitely get bugs and you know, you do get one bug which is quite unique and if you’re not used to it and urban dwellers are not used to it. I remember when I started experimenting with composting they were all in my house under the carpet, inside my printer coming out of the water faucet and my family just freaked out: ‘Why the hell are you doing this?’ And it’s the same thing and that’s what scares people. That one story scares people and if you can get past that right then it’s great. 

It’s called the black soldier fly maggot. In fact we have a saying in Daily Dump, we don’t bow to anybody but the black soldier fly maggot. It’s a very very happy very beautiful creature which we know nothing about in the sense in our everyday lives. But when you see it, its a creepy thing and lots of them here where you can make magic and the interesting thing that this is just the pupa stage. The fly that comes out is a very good fly. It has no mouth parts, it doesn’t eat any food does not carry any disease unlike the house fly, which is a rotten fly. 

So I didn’t know all these things, and its one of those things that you ask yourself: Why didn’t people teach us this when I was in kindergarten? That’s what really bothers me. You  know, we’re not taught the magic of air, water, soil. We don’t think it’s mysterious. We don’t think it’s enjoyable. We don’t think it’s it’s as cool as the phone or the laptop. 

Deepika: This was the part of the conversation where you suddenly came alive coz of course the mention of the soldier fly!

Arpita: Beaming like a strobe light at Poonam! Yeah because you know her experience mirrors mine in so many ways. I remember I went down the same path of feeling extreme revulsion in the beginning when I first spotted the maggots in the composter then but soon as I understood their part in the cycle even I shifted to that feeling of reverence and fondness for them! I mean who thought I was going to have a favorite fly? And like Poonam said, I felt that gap in my education – I wondered why I didn’t know about this.

Deepika: That’s why you’ve been writing that endless essay on the soldier fly that you’ve only been talking about!

Arpita: Soldier flies are really significant especially now they are actually being imported by temperate zone countries and farmed for solving this problem. I think that needs to be written about! 

Deepika: Yes, write but also share! But you know with Poonam, that assessment that our concrete classrooms actually don’t teach us very much.. so much so that they deny that deeper connection with what lies outside and the rest of the world. I think when DD began with home composters, it went from that place and said okay how do you look at community composting and what does that look like and it is now branching into working on building curriculum for schools on various subjects which bring back nature into our everyday lives. 

Arpita: If you remember we saw many of the teaching aids they use in these workshops, it was in their lovely little shop. And they showed us how many of them function in terms of rethinking our place in the world, examining our tricky relationship with material things and many such things. And they were all an extension of their design thinking methods to understand circular economy better.

Poonam: The circular economy is basically.. okay so nature wastes nothing right. So to that extent it’s circular but I think the far more powerful thing is that it’s also very interconnected. So while you may not see a completely linear circle moving around it might move through something else to close the loop which may not be visible. And I think that is where nature really shines. Because in the process of you know, if you become only circular what do you do you’ll only see that one material flow whereas nature teaches us that it’s also inter-dependency, it’s also many interconnections. 

Arpita: Yeah cause all to easily we like to reduce the idea of a circular economy into the simplistic notion of a circle. But like Poonam is saying here, it is much much more complex, the relationships are multilayered, there are so many interconnections – in many ways its more like a very complex web.

Deepika: I think it will be interesting to watch how DD grows with these ideas. You know a conversation with Poonam is from the beginning geared up to problem solving to ‘doing’, her energy is focused in that direction yet there was another side to the conversation which we both found ourselves really affected by it because everything is not quite rosy.

Arpita: You’re speaking to the bit where – what she refered to as the dark side of the conversation. Basically she was reflecting on how even though they’ve been working in the sector of waste management over a decade – it seems like they’re watching the problem grow instead of getting resolved.  

There is an urgency to the way Poonam speaks about all of this which seems sometimes scary and overwhelming. Most of us are trying to do our best, we live these really busy scheduled lives where it seems like there’s hardly space to think or breathe. But I think it’s important to consider the fact that the urgency comes from her vast experience and time in the field having watched and tried to work on this issue for so long.

Deepika: You know in some ways what shes saying is also pointing to the fact that when you are watching from the outside, something always seems more scary than when you’re in it – I think that distance creates fear. But the moment actions comes in play and it can be any action – whether you are segregating or composting which literally is putting waste into a bin and turning it – once you start doing that, the fear dissipates. Its because you’re taking those actions and it also becomes possible to live with awareness and imagine change and imagine what that can look like. 

Poonam: I don’t think you have a choice, you have to participate. I mean, why would you live otherwise? I feel that’s the fundamental thing if you have not figured out life and if you say no no, I won’t participate. I will just you know watch okay you watch but you watch with awareness and then participation will become normal.

I think anybody is on the thing of okay, I want to start but I don’t know how.. you have to say… the first thing you have to do is say: I will start and then how. Forget about the how. Change that I want to start but don’t know how… change that internal dialogue to: I will start today. Carry your own bag, carry your own bottled water, carry your own cutlery, carry your own cloth napkin – all those like you can Google and you find today. 

Fundamentally that you do and after that you’ve done you’ll say, okay, what else? At that point, I think that point you should really see how can you influence your friends, your community, your local school your and… for that you have to go out there and actually breathe the dirty air and you have to live in that space and you have to you know, you should really be go do the dirty work, the legwork. That I think is also very important if that person is interested in doing the work, but that also I find that luckily in a city like Bangalore, lots of people are getting involved.

People are just slowly understanding that what are we doing? There seems to be all over the world a kind of synchronous kind of feeling so it’s like a bud its slightly opening. 

Outro: If you’d like to get started on your composting journey, visit www.dailydump.org to learn more about composting at home. Or visit our website www.thecuriocitycollective.org for a list of resources and actions you can take today.

In our next conversation, we’ll be talking to 2 people, one in Gurgaon and the other in Bengaluru, who began composting at home and have now taken it to scale by bringing their entire community of over 300 households on board. Listen in to hear how they did it!

This episode was created with the support of Srinidhi Raghavan and produced by the Bangalore Recording Company.