By Chitra Mukherjee:
Munni, Sattoo, Srimati, Shakuntala, Gayatri, Anguri… all women working for a cleaner sustainable environment, all women who leave their houses at 7 am every day in green coats and masks and identity cards proudly hanging around their necks, to work at Chintan’s Material Recovery Facility at Bhopura, Ghaziabad.
Their day begins with sorting out the huge piles of waste that come in every day at the facility, waste that Delhi has not bothered to keep separate. So all the good paper and cardboard is now mottled with leftover daal and sabzi, soiled diapers and dirty sanitary napkins are all part of the game, broken needles, injections and filthy bandages which are wrapped around all shapes and sizes of glass and metal containers, and of course there are the ubiquitous packets of crisps and crackers which are of no use to anybody.
Yet these women chatter merrily with a hot cup of chai besides them and exchange banter with the men who walk in and out carrying gigantic bags of Delhi’s trash, all the while quickly and efficiently pulling apart the paper, the plastics, the glass, the metal, and about 40 different kinds of materials that the city has decided it longer has use for and has dumped nonchalantly. The city does not know that this army of waste pickers delves swiftly into all of this every day and finds that much of all this waste – 20-25%, actually – can be salvaged and sold for recycling. This, of course, means that they get decent incomes and their children can go to schools. For this extremely poor, marginalised, and highly vulnerable group of waste pickers, this is a very big deal.
These waste-pickers have little idea that their work is based on a closed loop or circular economy based model of waste management, which is the only way to save the planet’s fast depleting resources. As population grows, and more and more products are manufactured pell-mell at blinding speeds for an ever demanding people, the world which uncaringly subscribes to a take-make-waste philosophy, is headed for a disaster that is just around the corner.
The sooner we realise that the planet has limited resources and we have to conserve them by limiting our consumption, the quicker we’ll be on a path to recovery. India has much to teach the west. We practised circular economy while still in our cradles. This simply means using every product to its full life cycle and extracting full value out of it, and putting it back into the value chain so it can be re-used, re-purposed and recycled. Our mothers and grandmothers knew what this meant. Do you remember the jam jars and pickle jars of popular brands that were lovingly washed clean and reused to store rice and daal? So think again before you buy that shiny plastic jar for your kitchen cupboard. The Earth will thank you.