Chennai is missing the most important piece in the waste segregation puzzle

Cities like Pune have shown the critical role of informal waste pickers in waste management. But Chennai is yet to integrate them in its plans, even as segregation targets are missed.

“We have been in the business of dry waste management for years but nobody gives us a salary or respects us,” says Nayan Mohammad, a local waste picker in Velachery. Time and again, local waste pickers have been denied recognition for the vital work they do. They lack any kind of safety net and continue to operate informally on the fringes of waste management and are not given an opportunity to step into the formal fold. 

This time too, with the Indo-Spanish partnership ‘Urbaser-Sumeet’ bagging the waste management contract with Greater Chennai Corporation, waste pickers in many parts of the city share a collective sense of exclusion and neglect. 

The new waste management deal

Urbaser-Sumeet took over waste management in seven zones October 2020, with a framework centred on decentralized waste management. This includes segregating waste into biodegradable (vegetable peels, left over food, etc), non-biodegradable (plastic wrappers, milk covers, pens, etc) and Domestic Hazardous Waste (spray bottles, razors, medicines, etc) at the household level prior to disposal. Besides collecting household waste, the concessionaire also implements street sweeping on a regular basis. E-vehicles are provided to sanitation workers to go door-to-door, collecting waste. 

Read more: Where does the waste generated in your home go?

The contract specifies that under primary waste collection, “..the concessionaire shall segregate the waste in three separate streams….and store separately in suitable bins” and “there shall be three colour coded RC bins at each point/location for the storage of biodegradable, non-biodegradable and street sweeping waste” for the secondary segregation method.

The waste collectors rue lack of awareness on source segregation. Pic: Avantika Krishna

However, waste is often mixed in the e-rickshaw when collected from homes and later segregated only at the bins. “When the waste is too difficult to segregate, we mix it in the roadside bin as well and just leave to be segregated at the landfills,” said Durai, a waste collector in Velachery working with Urbaser-Sumeet.

When asked about the segregation of waste at roadside bins, as mentioned in the contract, R. Karpagam, daily sweeper with Urbaser-Sumeet said “Segregation has not been happening at the bin. Here, we mix the waste we sweep with the rest of the waste collected and segregation happens at the larger dump-yard.”

Despite the corporation’s mandate to encourage source segregation, no such message has been conveyed to households. “Officials are yet to talk to residents about how the waste is to be segregated at home. Only if that is done, can we do our jobs well. Until then, mixing of different types of waste will continue,” said Durai.

Read more: How the coronavirus pandemic has slowed down Chennai’s waste management efforts

Can local waste pickers provide a solution?

In order to make source segregation the norm, door-to-door campaigns must be conducted on ‘how waste is segregated’ and not ‘what waste segregation is’.

“NGOs and officials spreading awareness will not do much. When people think about non-biodegradable waste, they only think of recycling and they think anything man-made is recyclable but that is not true. Who better than a waste picker to explain this to people? But we are not included in this new waste management system,” said Mohammad.

Nayan Mohamad at his shop. Pic: Avantika Krishna

While Chennai continues to tackle the issue of waste segregation at home, cities like Pune have crossed the phase of awareness generation and evolved to a more advanced stage. With the SWACH (SWaCH Pune Seva Sahakari Sanstha) initiative and Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat (KKPKP) that commenced its operations as a co-operative of waste-pickers in 1993, Pune has successfully organised its previously neglected community of waste pickers. These waste pickers have been given an official ID card and a neon green waistcoat and have been employed with the municipal corporation. 

They go door-to-door or speak to associations in large apartments to ensure that each household is made aware of the difference between dry and recyclable waste and how the waste generated at home is treated in different plants. 

“In large apartment complexes like the one I live in, the corporation sends sanitation workers to each flat to collect waste. If they see that the waste given is mixed or not segregated well, they simply refuse to collect it. When they find many defaulters, they take away the large bins given to the society, which leaves us with no place to dispose of our waste,” says Sneha Uppal, a resident of Lohegaon in Pune. 

Chennai, like Pune, could initiate and implement the inclusion of its unincorporated waste picker community, to not only take charge of dry and recyclable waste, but also to spread awareness on how waste segregation can be practiced at home. 

Read more: How Swacchata ‘didis’, ward committees and local volunteers in small towns are showing the way to waste management during COVID-19

“People are aware that waste must be segregated but they do not know how it is to be done. This awareness must be spread but the Chennai corporation has taken no such initiative so far even under the new contract. This makes our job harder,” said Durai, as he struggled to find space in his e-vehicle to segregate waste.

Vamsi Sankar from the NGO Citizen Consumer and Civic Action and Group (CAG) too reiterated, “Households need to look at waste as resource management, instead of source segregation because now the talk is more about climate change and sustainable development. There is only a small fraction of waste that cannot be converted into energy. If this is understood by households, source segregation is possible.”

Erratic public engagement

In areas such as Velachery, a zone where the new waste concessionaire is working in full swing, residents have not been notified on how they should be segregating waste. “A few months ago, I saw corporation workers collecting waste in their new white vehicles. But that is all there was to it. New vehicles and uniforms. They never spoke to us about waste segregation,” said S. Rathnam, a resident of AGS colony, Velachery. 

K. Mani, owner of Maha pharmacy in Adambakkam, another area where e-vehicles can be spotted, said, “We have taken the initiative of telling our customers to segregate hazardous waste like needles and unused or expired medicines carefully. 99% of them are unaware of what hazardous waste even means. If not on recyclable items, the new sanitation workers should inform people about dangerous waste.”

The issue is no different in Puzhuthivakkam, where waste collection or segregation has not happened in commercial establishments. Sarthak Nair, owner of Orion restaurant, said, “My hotel generates a lot of waste on a daily basis but the e-vehicles that come to the nearby houses do not collect waste from my shop. We throw the garbage in the near-by bins regularly.” 

However, Urbaser-Sumeet’s contract reads “e-rickshaws engaged in service shall collect waste only from households/commercial establishments and not from other sources.” 

When asked about the involvement of resident associations in making source segregation a reality, Mohammad was sceptical: “In most parts of the city, including Velachery, there are only dormant resident associations that do nothing. Chennai is predominantly a city with independent and builder block houses and not large apartment complexes. So door-to-door education on source segregation can be done to a large scale by waste pickers like myself.” 

Read more: What will it take to make Chennai’s new waste management system a success?

Some small strides towards this have been taken by Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC) which has teamed up with a few NGOs across the city to help spread the message of source segregation in certain parts. GCC has also involved some resident associations in areas like Thiruvallikeni.

“A minimum of one resident from each street attended a meeting held by GCC, wherein they discussed a detailed sanitation plan and taught us the methods of segregation. Each member of the meeting was put in charge of overseeing waste segregation in their respective street and was asked to give the Corporation feedback on how sanitation workers performed,” says J Rama, a resident and in charge of waste segregation in Achari Muttu street in Triplicane.

Corporation yet to freeze a plan

As of now, the civic body is still at the stage of drafting a plan to talk to people at their homes about source segregation. Arul Mani, a worker at the Corporation office in Adambakkam, explained, “Yes it is true that we are yet to talk to people but we are in the process of making a plan and residents living in areas where the new contract has been implemented will be notified shortly via the GCC website.” 

When asked how local waste pickers can fit into this model, he replied, “They know a lot about waste segregation but GCC has not given any order to include them. The contract is still at the initial stage and we will be making changes to it. This is still a trial period and we must wait to see what has to be corrected. Meanwhile GCC is welcoming suggestions from the public and is taking steps to include them as well.”

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