Monday, 10 March 2014

What can India possibly teach Europe about Zero Waste?

Aimee Van Vliet

On a recent holiday to India, I was staggered by a sight that shocks most western tourists to Asia and Africa – the scale of discarded trash blighting the cities and countryside. Open landfills along the roadsides. Rivers and coastlines contaminated with plastic pollution. Piles of rubbish being burnt in yards and on the streets, cows munching through kilos of packaging waste. How, I wondered, can people bear living in such an environment? Surely they should be outraged, organising to solve this ecological disaster?

I spend the first couple of weeks jumping to easy conclusions: ‘People have bigger worries – they don’t have time to care about their environment’. ‘The country’s too poor to afford the infrastructure needed to tackle the problem’. ‘The West is to blame for exporting an unsustainable model of consumption to traditionally sustainable societies’. But I was no closer to understanding how it could be solved.

Cleaning up Varkala beach
When a French girl approached me on a beach in Kerala inviting me to help clean up the litter-strewn beach the next day, I was delighted that something small was being done to fight the wave of trash. Who knows, maybe through this small example something bigger would be set in motion. We could create awareness among the local population of the effects of trash on tourism.

The clean-up was arduous and felt pointless. After two hours we were still cleaning one end of the cliffs in Varkala that had been used as an unofficial tip for the village. Thirty or so tourist volunteers filled tens of huge refuse sacks with all manner of waste. Mostly packaging, but also surprising amounts of textiles. The Zero Waste organisation for Kerala, Thanal, had organised collection of the sacks.

Despite a small improvement in the appearance of the beach and a few encouraging signs of political willing toward Zero Waste ideas among members of the local council, I still felt overwhelmed and hopeless when considering what could be done. I decided to go to visit Thanal’s offices in Thiruvananthapuram, the regional capital, to speak to Shibu Nair, India’s answer to Rossano Ercolini, and get more perspective and information. I was thrilled when he agreed to spend an afternoon talking to me.

I had good reason to be star struck – Shibu is India’s leading authority on Zero Waste matters. He has been working on ZW projects for Thanal since 2000, and in 2002 travelled to California on the Zero Waste Fellowship Award to receive training at the Ecology Center and GAIA in Berkeley, staying with Annie Leonard of the viral video 'The Story of Stuff'.

While I was simmering with questions about the region’s waste problem, Shibu calmly told me the history of his region. He told me about its strong communist past, its high literacy rate, its commitment to education. All interesting stuff as Lonely Planet ‘context’ sections go, but how was this explaining the mountains of stinking trash? I felt impatient to get to the core of the issue.

But Shibu wasn’t going to take shortcuts. “You have to understand the background to the problem” he told me, and before long I saw why. He drew together strands from political corruption, interlocking corporate interests, poor central planning, education, all woven into a fascinating tale.

He finished by telling me how under the previous Communist government in the region, every local council in Kerala had been working on a waste prevention strategy, tailoring it precisely to local needs. This massive project was close to completion when the Congress Party swept back to power and closed it down, keen to hand contracts to cronies in ‘traditional’ waste disposal industries and protect powerful friends in the plastics sector.
Upcycled handicrafts

This could have been a body blow to the organization, but Thanal’s grassroots were strong. A community of women in Kovalam continued to make and sell handicrafts and products from waste, such as paper carrier bags from newspaper. Their economic interest in the project had turned them into staunch local advocates for Zero Waste business practices. Thanal opened an organic food store with Zero Waste principles. They continued to work on educating the population about recycling and composting throughout the region and the country.

Shibu remains resolute in spite of the setbacks he has faced. He strongly believes in the power of individual and community action to bring about widespread change, saying that “Carrying a cloth bag instead of accepting a plastic bag seems like nothing at all. But a cloth bag is a political statement. You are refusing to play a part in fossil fuel extraction, refusing the influence on politics of corporations, refusing the throwaway culture.”

In a country with such seemingly insurmountable waste problems, just to witness Shibu’s clear analysis, his moral conviction and positive belief in the power of individuals and communities was a tonic and a wake-up call. We can't wait for central government to solve our waste problem.  Zero Waste is a grass roots effort that strengthens local democracy and tackles corruption.

Paper food bags made from newspaper
In Europe, our waste problem is largely hidden. Rather than seeing our plastic waste scattered along the roadside it floats through the air as toxins emanating from incinerators, or seeps out of landfill into the soil and the water table. Its effects are every bit as disastrous to the ecosystem and human health as its Indian equivalent. Our economy is suffering, yet millions of euros-worth of valuable material resources are burnt every year. These are policies followed at national and regional level, but by refusing waste, each individual has the power to change them.

What Europe can learn from India, from Shibu, is that no matter the size of the challenge, no matter how powerful the opposition, how deep the corruption, the path to changing it starts with one person carrying a cloth bag.

If you’d like to contribute to a society that can be a positive model in the world, with open and democratic institutions, healthy air, water and soil and dynamic communities and local economies, start today. Pledge to adopt Zero Waste habits in your daily life and talk to co-workers, friends and family about it.

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1 comment:

  1. Excellent point about our waste problem being hidden. Loved this post- I did my thesis on Monsanto in India and lived in Pushkar for a semester so their struggles are near to my heart.