Lessons from a community initiative: Defence Colony recycling program

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The last few months have not been easy in India: economic growth is slowing, Rupee is declining, general lawlessness, regulatory flip-flops … the list is long. And yet there is so much to be done in getting India on a strong footing over the long term. Rather than lament about what is wrong this post by my wife Namrata is about a great initiative taken up by her and a number of volunteers in our neighborhood to improve the garbage collection situation. If there is one message I’d like to pass on to the readers of this blog it is to keep plugging away.  Bad times come and go and the only thing that counts is people who don’t lose steam and find meaningful things to do despite the challenges. Read on to learn more about what volunteers in our neighborhood achieved in 9 short months.

Dhiraj Kacker

——

By  Namrata Mundhra

In December 2012, a small group of Defence Colony residents, alarmed by the growing garbage problems of Bangalore, decided to take matters in their own hands and launched a pilot recycling program in Defence Colony, Bangalore. I was one of those residents and have been amazed at how much I have learnt about community-driven change from this experience. In describing how we developed and have managed to run this program despite the many hurdles, my hope is that more people will be willing to give such initiatives a chance. And will have an easier time of it by learning from our mistakes.

Today over 100 households in Def. Cly segregate their paper, plastic, glass, metal and e-waste and have managed to recycle over 5000 kgs of waste in the 9 months since we began this journey. No mean achievement.

Context: Defence Colony in Indiranagar,Bangalore is a community of over 500 households – a mix of many independent houses and small apartment buildings. There is about an equal mix of defence families and civilians today. Most residents are educated.  Community participation has largely been driven by and through the Residents Association. Membership with the Residents Association (DECORA) is voluntary upon payment of a small fee and only about 50% of residents are members. Resident fees and donations are the primary source of funds for DECORA and until recently there was no corpus available to fund large scale community initiatives.

From Left to right: ABC, XYZ

Def. Colony’s Motley Crew of Waste Managers, from left to right: Annie Thomas, Smita Shah, Rakhee Pankaj, Jyoti Kalapa, Sumati Prabhakar, Ambedkar, Agnes, Asha Muthanna, Namrata Mundhra (& kids)
Seated: Mich Gupta
On the bus: Rafiq

Genesis of the Dry Waste Program: In October 2012, the Bangalore Municipal authority (BBMP) announced new “rules” (ha!) for waste segregation and disposal. A small group of volunteers met with the BBMP health inspector to understand these rules so we could educate residents about what they needed to do to be in compliance. It did not take long for us to realize that nothing was going to change as the BBMP staffers and contractors continued to go their merry way. Rather than wait, a small group of us decided to take matters in our own hands. We focused initially on recyclable waste for 2 reasons:

  1. Most residents already segregate some of their recyclables – think newspapers and bottles – so we didn’t really have to create an entirely new habit – just piggyback on to an existing one.
  2. Back-end processes for recycling were also fairly well established – India has a network of kabadiwallahs, scrap-dealers, rag-pickers, etc. who already make their livelihood by recycling waste. So we were fairly confident that if we could figure out a process to collect segregated dry waste, we could recycle it.

To cut a long story short, we decided to partner with the RecycleGuru, an initiative of the Daily Dump (organization that focuses on composting products) to help us manage dry waste collection (since March we are working with the Domlur Dry Waste Recycling Center (DWCC) since they were much better position to handle large volumes)

This is when we began running into challenges and constraints. I describe below each hurdle we faced and how we managed to get around it.

1. It takes one bad apple to spoil the bunch: Residents that segregated at home, gave their waste to their domestic staff to dispose into common bins. Even if the home or apartment building had different bins for dry and wet waste – it took one careless person to dump organic waste into the dry waste container and contaminate everything.

What we did: We asked all households, even apartments to hold their waste at home and let our collection staff pickup. This door-to-door pickup added substantially to the time involved in collection but it also allowed us to ensure we got actual recyclable waste and not just garbage. This also allowed us to flag residents who were not segregating correctly so we could go back and talk to them about what they need to do differently. We also talked to the domestic workers and security guards during collection to educate them about the process. Today they are a very important element in helping us manage a smooth and efficient collection.

2. Show me the money!  The people doing your waste collection (assuming it is not the municipality) need to recoup their cost of collection in some way. Each collection requires a small truck, fuel, 1 driver and 1 collector/loader – the approx. cost of which is about INR 600-800 for a half day. And this does not take into account any profit the waste collection folks need to make so the effort is actually worth their while. Since DECORA didn’t have any spare funds to actually pay for collection and there was no way to impose and collect a separate dry waste fee on residents (particularly if we wanted the program to survive), we had to find some way of financing collection costs.

What we did: We asked people to pay for collection by giving us their high-value dry waste. Newspapers, magazines, milk packets, cardboard, glass bottles, metal are all higher value waste. If we got enough high-value dry waste, we could subsidize the collection of low value waste such as scraps of paper and plastic.

3.     People do want to have their cake and eat it too: Unfortunately this is where past habits worked against us. Many residents were used to selling their newspapers, and other high-value waste for some small amount and did not want to give that up. Some residents gave away their recyclables to their domestic staff and let them keep the proceeds from selling to the local kabadiwalla. Others donated their newspapers to charities such as the blind school in our neighborhood. If people opted out of giving us their high-value waste and we ended up with only the low-value – our collection partners would have no incentive to run the program for us. This really stumped us for a while.

What we did: The DECORA dry waste team volunteers went house to house to explain the program, costs of running the program and its benefits to residents. Initially we offered residents the option of either getting paid for their recyclables or donating proceeds to DECORA to help us fund collection. In our communication with residents we also stressed that the proceeds from our waste were helping small entrepreneurs who eked out a livelihood by managing our waste (appealed to their altruism to give up longstanding habits). Our volunteers were all residents who were passionate about the program and had strong ties to the community – with their help, we managed to get 85% of participants who signed up to give us all their recyclables and donate proceeds. For the ~15% of the participants who chose to get paid, we made sure we weighed and paid for their dry waste at time of collection so they still felt they had a choice. Since March 2013 we have transitioned out of this system – nobody gets paid but the program is completely self-funded (no fees, no funds from DECORA and no donations!).

4.     It’s not just a waste management problem, it is a change management problem: We started dry waste collection with a small group of DECORA volunteers going house-to-house along with our collection partners. Our goal was to phase ourselves out and let the collection folks take over in a couple of months. What we realized however, that most people were doing their bit because of us – their neighbors and friends. Given the general dysfunction around waste management in Bangalore, it is so easy to believe that no such new program will ever work. So it is valid for residents to think: why make the effort when it is bound to fail?

What we did: We expanded our group of volunteers (from 4 to 8), divided up the collection day into shifts of 1 to 1.5 hours each, and after a few months changed the frequency of collection from weekly to fortnightly so we could continue to run a volunteer-driven program. When residents saw us at their home every 2 weeks and realized we were not going away – they started making an added effort to segregate and hold their waste. Initially people pushed back about holding on to their dry waste for 2 weeks but our experience in the first couple of months had already demonstrated that most people do hold most recyclables for at least 2 weeks if not longer – what they object to is holding on to the bits and pieces of low-value dry waste and stuff that can attract pests like milk packets. But since the volunteers (their friends and neighbors) were asking they were willing to give it a try. And within a few weeks, most people had figure out their own system for holding their dry waste. Whether it is guilt, shame or trust – we were quite happy to use it to our advantage to ensure sustainability of this program.

5.     Nothing succeeds like success:  The pilot (of about 3 months) mostly included people the volunteers knew personally. Many other residents sat on the fence for a while – knowing about the program but not willing to take the next step of participating since they believed that like everything else, this too would come to an end in 3 months.

What we did: We made sure we kept up the buzz – we sent 2 emails a week to the residents group (and yes, having a residents group on email made our job much, much easier) with an update about the program, statistics of waste collected, reminders of how simple segregation actually was, etc. We decided that it was not our job to bully residents into participating or even to assume that once a solution was available everyone would automatically start segregating. Instead we deliberately allowed the program to grow word of mouth while ensuring that we keep up the communications through whatever forum possible. We organized special collection drives for e-waste and medicines, asked residents to talk to their neighbors, and leaned on our personal networks. It’s been a trickle, never a flood but we have managed to grow from the 30 households we started with to over a 100 participating households that actively recycle.

6.     Keep an open mind, really! When we started we made several assumptions. We would need to do a weekly collection. People need to segregate into multiple categories. Volunteers should stand back and let the collection staff run the show. Young professionals who are aware of environmental issues will be the more active participants. Door-to-door collection will not work.

What we learnt: None of these assumptions were valid. And because the volunteers were actively involved in the process, we really got to learn first-hand what could be done differently. Today we collect every other Saturday. We ask residents to segregate in a way that they find most convenient (since the Domlur recycling center we now work with does further segregation anyway). We ask the volunteers to be front and center during collection (and we all also pick up waste along with our collection partners so even our collection partners feel we are part of the team). Several of our older residents who have actively recycled and reused all their life are our most responsible participants. As more residents sign up and take responsibility, in some cases we are able to move to collection from a common bin – but we still largely run a door-to-door collection since we are able to get both more dry waste and better segregated waste.

In conclusion, while we still have a long way to go, after all only 20-25% of our residents currently recycle, I do believe that this program is now on auto-pilot. And if I could pinpoint the one decision that made the greatest difference, it would be to run this with the help of volunteers. In the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has

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