Written by Tanya Jaswal
As a child I was always interested in wildlife. I loved birds, animals and insects around me. I was very comfortable around them. To push my interest a little forward I joined WWF (World Wide Fund) and gained knowledge about birds. How to identify birds by their call, by their size and shapes. I became more sensitive towards animals and birds. Every weekend I visit nearby parks, sanctuaries and gardens to observe and document birds and insects, to learn more about them.
While nature was bright and beautiful, on the flipside there was always one thing which disturbed me and that was “WASTE”. Whenever I used to go to my terrace I used to always wonder why there are kites flying above an odd mountain. Someone told me that it is not a mountain, but rather a heap of garbage which is clearly visible from my terrace. I got shocked and interested in that ‘mountain’ so much that it made me take up the journey of urban waste management. I visited Delhi’s largest landfill (Ghazipur Landfill) for my research. I was on the heap of waste. Dogs were barking at me, black kites were flying so near that it looked as if they would scratch me. There were big rats running here and there in search of food. In the landfill I saw kitchen waste, clothes and the enemy of the environment which is plastic. Everywhere there was dust, a bad stingy smell and the heap of waste was trembling below our feet. There were waste pickers who were working without any protective measures. I felt disgusted and that was the turning point of my life. That moment I decided that whatever it takes I will devote my whole life to managing the problem of waste.
I started looking for internships and volunteering opportunities in different sectors around waste management. Beginning with solving issues of waste management in Himachal pradesh (State in India). Then working again in different parts of Delhi. Currently I am working as a Social Designer and Field Coordinator at a company called Vertiver, on an ongoing project called Su-Dhara. Su-Dhara is a sentinel project under the Prime Minister’s Waste to Wealth Mission, which is headed by the Office of the Principal Scientiﬁc Adviser (PSA) to the Government of India. Under this project, we have made two temples of East Delhi convert to zero waste by composting the flowers and organic waste, with the help of two drums installed by the organisation.
Earlier the flowers used for religious offerings, used to end up in the river and in the landfill but now the compost is getting ready out of the flowers and is distributed free to the worshippers and the temple committee.
Recently in Holi (holi is a festival of colours where people apply colours on each other and play with water) under the Su-dhara project we trained some community ladies to make organic colours with flowers which were offered in the temple as organic gulaal (coloured powder). The ladies packaged the organic colours in small cloth bags (zero waste packaging) made out of religious offerings of cloth to the temple. We also trained 50 plus community members to compost their organic waste at home, a practice they have eagerly continued.
I also started composting my organic waste into wonderful compost and started living a zero waste lifestyle. Living sustainably and sharing my knowledge, experience and passion with others has led me to create my instagram handle- @zero_waste_rebel. Where I talk about composting and how to live a zero waste lifestyle, I also portray the stories of waste pickers who face daily challenges working in a harsh environment.
During my research on waste management, I used to tell my friends and neighbours that I am working on waste management. People always told me to find some other job rather than working on waste, as it’s the most disgusting job according to them. Some of the comments were like “You will be surrounded with waste”. “Why are you even concerned about waste, let the government handle it”. This wasn’t enough. There was a time when I was conversing with our street’s waste picker, and when I left, a policeman beat him up, telling him that he couldn’t talk to a person from a big house. After that it took me around two to three months to make that waste picker comfortable again. Everyone demotivated me to work on waste. It’s hard to change the behaviour of the people because people are rigid to any change.
So there was another lady who was throwing her waste bag from the third floor of her building. I was filming her, and she called the police. Then I understood that waste management is something which people don’t want to talk about and which people don’t want to involve themselves into. I understood that waste is not just about waste, it is about identity, illegality, perceived illegality, and the insensitivity of the upper class people who throw their waste from the top of their buildings. It is not just about segregation and composting. It is about human rights, human dignity and human safety.
When the whole world was battling with the pandemic and the whole country was under lockdown, the waste pickers were working. They were segregating the bio medical waste from their bare hands.
The work which the waste picker did was essential work yet highly dangerous and thankless work.
“We don’t need a handful of people doing zero waste perfectly. We need millions of people doing it imperfectly”, Anne-Marie Bonneau.
I would go one step further and say, “We don’t need a handful of people composting their organic waste or living a zero waste lifestyle, absolutely not, we need millions of people doing it imperfectly.”
We need more people to be aware of the waste management issue as it is something we generate and we should have a way to responsibly dispose of it. The issue of waste is not only a human concern but an ecological one as well. Some animals consume plastic unknowingly from the heaps of garbage. The bits of plastic consumed build up in their internal organs, which make it difficult for animals to eat. The same happens with the birds. So it is really important to spread awareness on waste management issues around the globe. Unsegregated waste from a landfill leads to toxins leaking into the groundwater too, eventually entering our food cycle and causing health issues in the long run. Being more conscious about ethical waste disposal is vital to our survival as well as the health of our environment. We must educate ourselves and begin the small steps towards an eco conscious future.
For more of Tanya, check out @zero_waste_rebel on Instagram