Metro Matters | Delhi must make reduce, reuse fashionable again

Reduce, repair and reuse are not alien concepts. These are traditional practices that just need refurbishing to make them fashionable again
Resource efficiency itself comes with multiple benefits. According to the 2019 draft national policy, it saves cost by reducing material use, reduces social conflicts due to mining, increases job opportunities and reduces climate change and environmental degradation. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO) PREMIUM
Resource efficiency itself comes with multiple benefits. According to the 2019 draft national policy, it saves cost by reducing material use, reduces social conflicts due to mining, increases job opportunities and reduces climate change and environmental degradation. (Ravi Choudhary/HT PHOTO)
Updated on Nov 09, 2021 12:03 PM IST
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This festive season, as we worry about what the high-calorie intake did to our weight, we could spare a thought about our consumption habits — which don’t just include the food and drinks we consumed.

Making most of the festive discounts, did we buy things on impulse? Replacing the old with the new, did we discard too much, too soon?

Some of us have taken to waste-sorting, which is indeed a big help to the planet. But the effort has to be accelerated by both the authorities and the citizens. Recycling and composting cut the waste transported to the overflowing, simmering, methane-laden landfills that foul up groundwater, air and emit greenhouse gases, which have long-term effects on the climate. Efficient segregation also ensures that used products are transformed into raw materials, which can then be reused into the production cycle, thereby reducing the load on natural resources.

But recycling is only the next “most preferred” option in the waste management hierarchy after prevention-reduction-reuse. “Recycling is what we do when we are out of options to avoid, repair, or reuse the product first,” explains Annie Leonard, the creator of The Story of Stuff, a 2007 film on production and consumption trends and habits. Reduce, reuse and recycle are practices that can prevent cities from sinking under their own trash.

A reality check

Sinking in trash is no more just a metaphor to describe Delhi’s waste crisis. We have made it happen for real. In 2017, a section of the Ghazipur landfill, Delhi’s oldest mountain of garbage, gave way in an avalanche-like slide, killing two people and washing away cars in the canal running alongside. In August, a portion of the Bhalswa landfill collapsed, swamping eight hutments and vehicles with mounds of garbage. Fortunately, no casualties or injuries were reported.

Though tucked away in the farthest corners of the city, Delhi’s landfills are hard to hide. Stressing on the need to remove the “mountains of garbage” from Indian cities by processing all legacy waste, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the launch of the second phase of Swachh Bharat Mission (Urban) on October 1: “There is one such mountain of garbage in Delhi too. It has been sitting there for years, waiting to be removed.”

Two years ago, the National Green Tribunal directed Delhi’s three municipal corporations to clear legacy waste from Ghazipur, Bhalswa and Okhla landfills and set deadlines between 2022 and 2024. Last month, HT reported that the committee overseeing the three projects was told that only around 11% of the total legacy waste has been excavated and treated until July this year.

The committee has asked the municipalities to submit fresh deadlines for bio-mining — a process of separating components such as inert, plastic, clothes from the organic matter so they can be treated accordingly.

The civic bodies have cited their own reasons, such as intermittent rain and lack of space to process huge amounts of inert (stones, dust, silt), for the delay. It won’t be easy to get rid of landfills that got saturated years ago, just as it is difficult to find locations to build even “scientifically engineered” dumpsites.

Instead, authorities are now installing waste-to-energy plants. Such plants, experts say, release toxic pollutants if unsorted trash makes it to the incinerators, and require stringent emission controls.

Ideally, after segregation at source, wet waste should go to local composting and bio-methanation plants, recyclables to recycling units, non-recyclable, high-calorific waste for co-processing in cement plants or to incinerators, and inert to landfills. But would it not be easier to control the quantum of garbage by just discarding less?

Administrative action

Starting with making India open defecation free, Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban 2.0 is now focusing on making Indian towns and cities garbage-free. The performance indicator to assess the efforts of municipalities to reduce waste generated by homes, commercial and industrial set-ups has also been refined in the Swachh Survekshan 2022 with marks allotted for ward-wise penetration.

“By adopting the 3R principles (reduce, reuse and recycle), the focus should be on reducing the amount of waste, which is finally transported to the processing/disposal site or processed through on-site composting,” the toolkit states. It also asks cities to organise at least one zero waste social gathering between December 2021-January 2022 and have at least one Atmanirbhar ward with zero collection of wet waste by the municipality.

The municipal agencies in Delhi, which have consistently fared badly on the cleanliness index, are gearing up for the survey. The South Delhi Municipal Corporation has announced the setting up of crockery banks (where people can borrow steel utensils for social gatherings instead of using disposables), old books and toy banks, old clothes donation points in 28 municipal wards under its jurisdiction. The waste-to-wonder park at Sarai Kale Khan, which has imitations of the “seven wonders of the world” made of metal scrap, is being replicated.

Beyond cleanliness contests

But these initiatives can be institutionalised only if the authorities do it out of habit rather than as an administrative chore ahead of civic surveys, and citizens participate actively.

To maintain continuity on these initiatives, Swati Singh Sambyal, a waste management expert, makes a bunch of suggestions: Involve resident bodies so action trickles down to the ground; create systems by way of guidelines that could be adopted by all; institute penal provisions in case there is non-compliance; replicate initiatives across neighbourhoods and disseminate information about them.

“For example, what could one do to ensure there is minimum use of single-use disposables at a large social gathering? There should be a set of guidelines to refer to, which can be prepared with the help of NGOs working in the waste management sector. Steel utensils could be borrowed from a crockery bank that should be located nearby. Once the system is universalised, municipalities could also penalise events that have a high waste footprint, or say, ones that use single-use plastics, which are being banned now,” she explains.

In August, the Union Environment ministry notified the Plastic Waste Management Amendment Rules (2021) that prohibit the manufacture, import, stocking, distribution, sale and use of identified single-use plastic items. While making it mandatory for the thickness of plastic carry bags to be increased to 120 microns by the end of next year, the rules also ban the use of single-use plastic items such as tumblers, plates, cutlery, wrapping or packaging films. The ban on these will come into force from July 1 next year.

In continuation, Delhi government has formulated a ten-step action plan to phase out single-use plastic, detailing time frames for each action, deadlines and the agencies responsible for the task.

Authorities could also refer to Kerala’s Green Protocol under the ongoing Suchitwa Mission, which is a set of measures aimed at reducing garbage generation, and started by discouraging the use of disposables (including plastic, paper) and using reusable alternatives.

Starting with the National Games in 2015, where disposables were replaced by porcelain and steel crockery, cutlery and flasks, the administration has made similar interventions at large religious gatherings, youth festivals, public functions, elections and weddings. In schools and offices, they ask students and staff to use fountain pens instead of more disposable ball-point pens. Early this year, more than 11,000 offices in the state were given green tags, which mean that they ban plastic and disposables at the premises, remove unused furniture and have localised waste treatment facilities.

Sambyal says the Kerala model worked well because the authorities started by creating state-level guidelines, then trained municipalities, who in turn connected with people in creating zero-waste options to minimise consumption or have zero-waste events. They even have penal provisions for non-compliance. Now the model is being replicated in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka.

Refurbish traditions

The wide availability of disposable products, over-packaging and over-advertising encourage us to not only consume more but also throw away more. Having gone so far on consumerism, can we ever retreat to a lifestyle that’s less disposable? Probably yes, if we can recycle some thrifty ideas from not so long ago.

There was a time when we reused every bottle and container that came with a household product and hardly shopped for plastic storage. Torn clothes were mended and shoes were repaired, gadgets and machinery many times over. There was little urgency to replace them with the latest models. Hand-me-downs were not frowned upon. Old clothes, shoes, plastic and metal were routinely bartered for steel utensils. Everything — from undone rope cots to discoloured utensils, broken watches and clocks to blunt knives — could be repaired, refurbished and reused.

Over the years, however, bartering, repairing and even shops selling second-hand products have decreased in numbers in big cities and the metros.

The draft national resource efficiency policy of 2019, in fact, lists out the roles of various stakeholders in promoting the transition to a circular economy, “which keeps resources in use for as long as possible extracting the maximum value, recovering and regenerating products and materials at the end of each service life.”

Consumers could do their bit by creating demand for resource-efficient products and services, share products (for example, car-sharing), undertake environmentally safe disposal of their end-of-life products and take personal responsibility for responsible consumption, the draft policy states.

Resource efficiency itself comes with multiple benefits. According to the draft national policy, it saves cost by reducing material use, reduces social conflicts due to mining, increases job opportunities and reduces climate change and environmental degradation.

In a policy brief on why cities need to advance towards zero waste, C-40 cities climate leadership group has listed out its social benefits. For example, on average, zero waste strategies create ten times more jobs than technology-intensive methods such as landfilling or incineration. Collection, sorting and treatment require more workers, and take-back, reuse and repair systems create local jobs.

Besides, initiatives such as community composting, repair shops, eateries that cook with surplus edible food, lending libraries for tools and equipment, help to bring communities together, the report states. It cites the example of an abandoned train station in Paris, which has been converted into a cultural centre for appliance repair, urban farming and dining-in.

Closer home, the repair café in Bengaluru has been since 2015 organising events where people can bring their broken items and get them repaired by repair specialists.

Reduce, repair and reuse are not alien concepts. These are traditional practices that just need refurbishing to make them fashionable again.

The views expressed are personal

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    Shivani Singh leads the Delhi Metro team for Hindustan Times. A journalist for two decades, she writes about cities and urban concerns. She has reported extensively on issues of governance, administrative and social reforms, and education.

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Monday, November 29, 2021