Waste Management in Mestri Palya: A Case Study

January 24, 2024 Vaidya R

Waste Management is something that we often tend to overlook so what if you take out some time and think about it? Let us think, we generate waste, and what next? That isn’t our responsibility. Why? Well, that has multiple reasons, it can be psychological, social and so much more. “Neither the life of an individual nor the history of a society can be understood without understanding both.” Just the same, it’s also important to put Mills’ theories into this sphere, waste management is a social issue and it is not our individual decision, it is a system and we are a part of it therefore our decision matters.

In this paper, I will talk about the problems of improper waste management through a case study based in Mestri Palya, Koramangala. This is a project namely Community Development at Mestri Palya through Namma Swachha Koramangala Initiative which was initiated on 1st October 2021 and continued till 30th September 2022. Let’s Be The Change was funded by BOSCH to carry out this project. The aim was to promote understanding towards and take action for Solid Waste Management (SWM).

This project had certain aims like community development in Mestri Palya, empowering individuals by educating them about SWM and bringing about a behavioral change with respect to how people perceive waste and deal with it.

Keeping in mind the Indian Population, tons of waste is generated daily but we are least concerned about its disposal.

The 12th Schedule of the 74th Constitution Amendment Act of 1992 assigns the responsibility of maintaining cleanliness in cities and towns to urban local bodies (ULBs). However, numerous challenges hinder the effective functioning of these ULBs. They grapple with issues such as insufficient infrastructure, limited institutional capabilities, financial constraints, and a lack of political commitment. Despite some government assistance, the majority of Indian ULBs remain financially vulnerable. India has already utilized all available landfill sites, and these ULBs lack the resources to acquire new land for this purpose. Additionally, identifying new landfill sites poses a considerable challenge, as local officials are reluctant to allocate land within their jurisdiction for waste generated from other areas.

The initial phase of the project involved spreading awareness about the concept of waste segregation at source and why it is essential. Awareness is a broad term and before conceptualizing our framework it was essential to break it down into two parts, first understanding what the community considers as a “problem” due to improper waste management and also understanding what they think they can do about it. Phase 1 of our project was heavily ideated based on the Theory of Planned behavior that involved understanding the community members perceived power over decision-making, how the social factors affect their decisions, and their perceived control over the behavior. The decision was simple and we knew the solution- 2 bins, 1 bag but what made its implementation difficult was not only individual perceptions but also societal factors.

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) originated as the Social Learning Theory (SLT) in the 1960s, courtesy of Albert Bandura. In 1986, it evolved into SCT, asserting that learning unfolds within a social setting through a dynamic and reciprocal interplay between an individual, their environment, and their behavior and that is what mattered to us the most, in understanding this interaction.

We had to identify a distinct manner in which individuals acquire and sustain behaviors, all while taking into account the social milieu in which these behaviors occur, their past experiences also shape their behaviors.

In Mestri Palya, with a population exceeding 1000 residents, our project initially identified several key issues. One prominent concern was the lack of awareness among the people regarding waste segregation. Even when we introduced the concept, there was resistance to adopting it. People were reluctant to keep dustbins inside their homes, fearing that it would attract flies. This behavior indicated a perception of waste as something external, not part of their responsibility.

    Regarding the waste collection system, there were numerous complaints. Most notably, the irregular schedule of the waste collection vehicle was a significant problem. Additionally, due to the layout of the locality and narrow roads, residents in the interior areas often missed the vehicle’s arrival, resulting in garbage being left on street corners. The waste collection was less than 30% and segregation was less than 20% in this locality.

    The timings of waste collection was a major issue that needed to be addressed and it was identified how there was minimum communication between the people and the local bodies. We had to bridge the gap to regularise waste collection, we collaborated with the BBMP to make it happen.

    Door-to-door awareness sessions were conducted to identify the individuals’ perceived beliefs about waste management, community meetings were also conducted in order to influence their behavior or give them a nudge. Gradually the individuals were accustomed to the concept of color codes related to waste and after continuous monitoring for 6 months, we achieved 100% segregation at source.

    Our strategy to make them segregate their waste was by numbering the bins we gave them so that we could track their behavior on a daily basis. Our team members used to be at the site during waste collection every morning and this gave us the count of people who are performing well. For the ones who did not, we talked to them later to identify their problems.

    Human beings are rational and they behave by assessing their rewards and punishments (Rational Choice Theory), we use this to our advantage. If even after multiple follow-ups we found out some household not segregating their waste we penalized them for taking assistance from the BBMP Marshal. Although this theory is not applicable for a long-term impact. It can be used as a nudge to initiate a behavioral change.

    The awareness sessions or community meetings focused on providing a space for people to talk about the issues that they face, their questions, and their ideas and this was a very good way to identify their perceived belief about waste segregation, their perceived barriers that are what is stopping them to segregate their waste and also their perceived control that is how much power they have as individuals to contribute to a cleaner and safer environment. We talked about avoiding the use of plastic liners for dustbins, avoiding the generation of microplastics, and cleaning plastic covers before disposing of waste. We found that people were more inclined to adopt practices or follow instructions that they could connect with on a personal level. For instance, we demonstrated a specific method for cutting milk packets that minimized the generation of smaller plastic pieces. When residents applied this method at home, our demonstration served as a psychological trigger or nudge, and it proved to be effective! Another nudge was identifying and awarding the individuals following the best practices, in June 2022 we awarded 54 households for following the best practices and the number increased to 181 in July 2022. We also identified around 20 lane leaders for taking responsibility for the cleanliness of their lanes again inducing learning through social nudges.

    “If we enjoy what we do, we will be doing it for a long time,” said one of the community members, and immediately a nudge was identified- building a rapport with the community members had paid us off and a stage was reached where they would open up about the nudges that would work for them. SWM games were designed and more than 20 children from the community participated in it. The learning theory talks about how individuals comprehend and retain certain concepts and there was no better way than gamification for this age group but we had to think of a way to apply LT for all age groups and this is when we came across the idea of street plays which would be reaching out to people on relatable issues – we conducted 11 street plays and more than 600 people attended them.

    Talking about Menstrual Hygiene in the community was one of the biggest challenges, For ages it has been a concept that has been avoided or dug deep into the pile of burdens that women face. Around 15 women attended our sessions where we talked about how harmful it can be to dispose of their sanitary waste with wet or dry waste. We tried to explain the negative impacts of using pads and provided them with knowledge about alternatives like cloth pads or menstrual cups. We invited Mrs Anitha Rao from the Sakriya Foundation, who actively conducts sessions on menstrual hygiene and personal hygiene management. Even if we tried our best the women of the community were still sceptical about using menstrual cups because it felt like an alien object entering their bodies.

    To keep them engaged and continue giving nudges to make them realize the gravity of the matter we organized activities in between like plog runs, beautification of garbage dumps, etc. 2 plog runs were executed in the community, the first batch was on the 26th of February 2022 where over 10 people participated and more than 10 kgs of waste was collected and the second batch was on 27th September 2022 where more than 20 people participated and 13 kgs of waste were collected. We also got immense assistance from the community people to transform 5 garbage dumps into beautified spots – well every time they would see it, the entire process of transformation would rewind in their brain, and because this is something onto which they have put in the effort they would not want to turn in into a garbage dump again!

    Keeping the community members motivated was the biggest challenge that we faced and we had to constantly improvise and incentivize them for a long-term impact which was the most crucial part of Phase 2 of our project. Maintenance of a change would also involve intact connection between the community members and the ULBs and here is when social media can be effectively used. A WhatsApp group with people from the community was created and the aim was to spread awareness about the events planned by us, and identify any new blackspot, or people throwing garbage within the community to bring to notice, drivers of the waste collection vehicles were also added to maintain communication for smooth functioning of the now established system.

    The Mestri Palya community used to generate approximately 650kgs of waste daily. Initially, the segregation rate was below 20%, which meant that a significant portion, 80% or 520 kgs per day, ended up in the landfill. However, as time progressed, we observed a gradual reduction in the quantity of waste being disposed of in the landfill.

    In the second quarter, there was a decrease in landfill waste, going from 80% to 70%. By the third quarter, this reduction continued. This substantial improvement is primarily attributed to the effective waste segregation practices adopted by the residents.

    Moreover, our sustained efforts led to a reduction in the use of plastic liners for waste disposal. Over a six-month period, this initiative resulted in a decrease of 25 kgs of waste being sent to the landfill.

    This journey continued for about a year and there are a lot of difficulties that we have faced the major one being resistance to listen and accept. Resistance can be tackled with huge time investment and our door-to-door interactions were really fruitful that way, building a rapport and understanding their perspectives helped us customize the solution which went beyond 2 bins and 1 bag. Conversations regarding menstrual hygiene were also challenging but creating a safe space where women are talking about it, motivated the women of the community to open up as well, “we do what we see ”. The impact created was hugely dependent on external factors like our involvement, frequent nudges like plog runs, sessions, talks, availability of suitable materials to promote a change, etc. The initiative was foolproof but no doubt there have been challenges or improvisations that could have been made. Provision of external factors is not always feasible hence the aim was to turn segregation into a habit which we could do and to date the monitoring is ongoing.

    In the quest for sustainable waste management, our program took an inspiring turn towards fostering entrepreneurship within the community, shedding light on the untapped potential hidden in waste. However, as we delved deeper into this transformative journey, we encountered the intricate web of gender dynamics within the community of Mestri Palya.

    Interestingly, a striking pattern emerged – the enthusiastic support predominantly came from the women of the community. Our endeavor to utilize textile waste for creating valuable products like pouches and coasters resonated profoundly with them. On the flip side, a prevalent gender stereotype surfaced, with some men perceiving activities like “stitching” as too feminine or dismissing the project as insufficiently lucrative to sustain their families. This revelation has prompted us to pause and reflect, acknowledging the need for a more nuanced understanding of the dynamics at play.

    Currently, we are working to make the entrepreneurial effort a success, weekly training sessions are held in Mestri Palya where women of the community are taught to make pouches, rakhis for festivals and so on and we aim to create a market for their product soon.

    Despite the progress made, there are lingering challenges and aspects we consider as potential loopholes in our model. The generation of microplastics, resistance to adopting menstrual cups, and coordination hurdles with waste collectors remain on our radar. These challenges serve as poignant reminders that our journey toward sustainable waste management is an ongoing process, and addressing them is integral to refining our model.

    Undoubtedly, the resilience of the community and the positive strides witnessed in our project inspires us to push the boundaries further. As we navigate the intricacies of waste transformation, we remain committed to continual improvement. Our mission extends beyond waste management; it encapsulates the empowerment of every individual, irrespective of gender, fostering an environment where sustainable practices become ingrained in the community’s ethos.

    With optimism and determination, we eagerly anticipate reaching new milestones, furthering our impact, and creating a lasting legacy of positive change in Mestri Palya.

    (Republished with permission from Adrija Chakraborty’s of Let’s Be the Change)