Waste management: It just takes a bit of will – and vision

Shipra Agarwal

During my first few weeks as a teacher, I recall noticing how the school quadrangle transformed during every lunch break. From a clean and accessible area, it turned into a zone where food scraps and different kinds of plastic made it difficult to walk across. It never mattered for long though, for all of it was soon swept, bagged up and thrown away.

At the time, the question of where ‘away’ is, never crossed my mind, because a decade ago my understanding of waste was limited to cleanliness. It was probably a reflection of the societal bubble that I inhabited, where the focus was on the removal rather than responsible disposal of waste.

Even today several parts of the country struggle with inadequate and incomplete waste management. In the process of writing this article, however, I discovered how several schools and learning centres across the country are changing how waste is managed inside and outside their circle of influence while changing the definition of waste through their efforts.

Children eating at a birthday feast at Puvidham and upcycling newspaper to make masks for a play

As Meenakshi, co-founder at Puvidham Learning Centre based in Dharmapuri, says, “A part of the story of waste is not generating waste.” She adds, “We have a protocol of not throwing away paper unless it is used on both sides. Once it has been written on both sides, it is used for origami and once it is used for origami, it is used as papier mache`. We also have close to zero edible food waste because our system of eating is to eat and lick our plates and bowls clean.”

Hearing Meenakshi say this, I instantly remarked what a great habit this would be for us adults to practice too! But as we know building habits and changing behaviours is hard work, a team effort and rarely ever a short-term achievement.

This realization sunk in deeper when I was in conversation with Vidhu Narayanan, a science teacher at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya (SPV), Delhi. She has and continues to spearhead the efforts in her school and says, “The first step has always been to reduce, this is what we have always tried to do. Initially, we used laminated brown covers for the notebooks and one year we decided to do away with them. Now the children cover their books with newspaper or with fabric covers, or don’t cover them at all. We also have an annual food festival (with approximately 3000 attendees), where parents put up almost 70 food stalls. Initially, this used to generate a lot of waste and it took us close to four years, but we’ve made it an almost zero-waste event.”

I spoke with educators both in schools that have been building a culture around waste management for several decades and to those who started on this journey only a few years ago. In this article, I am going to be sharing a few common practices that all these schools follow, elaborate on a few unique experiments and efforts, and throw light on a few challenges that have come their way.

Starting with the basics
During my conversations with educators and school leaders, I have come to understand how every school or learning centre is unique in the way it manages its waste. However, there are certain practices that are common across most of these communities:

Students, teachers and staff during a waste audit exercise at Rajghat Besant School

Core committees
A common feature in such schools is the presence of groups and committees where students have an integral role to play. Teachers and staff usually play supportive roles and large parts of the waste management initiatives are student-driven.

Waste segregation
Separating different types of waste lies at the core of most waste management efforts and all the schools I spoke with practice this. While some have secondary segregation (which is further sorting of segregated waste into different types) in place, all schools have separate bins in the classroom, sometimes in the corridor and common areas such as the dining hall.

There are interesting ways in which the segregated bins are designed. Some of these are made using old cardboard boxes, another school upcycles old t-shirts into waste collection bags inside classrooms and a learning centre even has a teacher assigned to handle specific types of waste.

However, as Indira Vijaysimha, founder at Poorna Learning Centre shares that when it comes to segregation, it is important to keep at it. It is useful to share periodical reminders for people to segregate.

Paper recycling
It is evident that paper is one of the largest streams of waste in a school. Some schools such as the Infant Jesus Matriculation Higher Secondary School (IJMHSS) at Kalpakkam have their papers collected and sent to local recyclers. As Deepak Dennison, assistant school leader says, “One of the primary wastes we generate as a school is paper, it forms a large chunk. We try segregating paper at the source itself. The exam papers, books and cardboard are stored in a separate room.”

A paste is made from paper pulp, Making Recycled Paper_Puvidham

Several schools also have small-scale paper recycling systems inhouse. Kalpana from Prakriya Green Wisdom School, Bangalore shares that some of the used paper in the school goes to paper making units which is run by the 8th and 9th class students, “The process is quite simple, but it takes time. The pulp is first made, the sheets are set, dried, and then stored for use. Instead of chart paper we use this paper because these sheets are thick.” Students from Dolphin International School in Kashmir have also learnt to make recycled paper using a mesh and drying system. Shibumi, a learning community in Bangalore, sends large volumes of waste to be recycled to a local recycling centre. They have also tried recycling small bits of paper using the paper shredder at a small-scale. Learning centres like Puvidham and Thulir, also use the paper in art and craft.

Waste reduction
While several learning communities have mindful consumption and living at the core of their principles, waste reduction found a mention in conversations with all educators.

Kumar Radhakrishnan, Director at Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi mentions how after a waste audit at school, milk packets were found to be a waste category that contaminated and caused other waste to smell as they were not washed and dried. During this time, the school decided to switch to sourcing milk from a dairy. Other sources of plastic waste such as snacks and bread packets were also replaced by alternatives from local vendors.

Tilo from Marudam Farm School, Tiruvanamalai shares how the community has a shared vision on minimizing single-use plastic packaging. No plastic is allowed in the community kitchen and all groceries are procured locally and in bulk by sending bags to the wholesale local shop. To tackle stationery-related waste, there is a tiered system. This means purchase requests are routed through a few people whose job it is to make sure the item is not in stock and needs to be bought.

Prakriya School also encourages the reuse of textbooks from senior to junior classes. For more than three years now, Sardar Patel Vidyalaya has reduced the use of paper by almost 75 per cent by using one-side blank, one sided typed legal sheets, sent in by parents who are lawyers by profession. One-side papers are used for all internal purposes such as question papers, worksheets and office sheets.

Several schools such as Poorna Learning Centre and Puvidham also discourage their students from purchasing and distributing plastic wrapped chocolates and toffees on their birthdays and encourage the distribution of food items like bananas or local goodies like peanut laddoos or chikkis.

Organic waste
Another source of waste in schools is organic waste or biodegradable waste or wet waste. Some schools have cows, hens and ducks on their premises which are fed vegetable and fruit peels. A handful of schools are also experimenting with making bioenzymes (a type of DIY non-toxic natural cleaner) out of their citrus fruit peels. In all the schools I spoke with food waste is composted either in compost pits or community composters. In some schools, the organic food waste is also used to produce biogas, make vermicompost or organic fertilizers like Jeevamarutha and Panchagavya.

Composter being emptied at IJMHSS and Bioenzymes at SPV.

In relation to the potential of organic waste, I recall a particularly poignant conversation with Pallav Thudgar, who works at Muskaan, an NGO in Bhopal. Muskaan works with vulnerable slum communities largely comprised of tribal populations and runs a school called Jeevan Shiksha Pahel, which has students who are first-generation learners and some with a background in rag picking. For this reason, Pallav shares that there is a unique kind of learning while working with waste which is different from the conventional notions of waste management and sustainability. He goes on to explain that initially children were not comfortable while working with organic food waste because it contained food scrap, looked and smelt dirty. However, in the process of seeing this food waste become compost, the students lost their hesitation. Experiencing the transformation of food waste which looks and smells dirty into a rich, crumbly compost that smelt of fresh rains, broke barriers.

Harvested compost at Jeevan Shiksha Pahel

This compost is monitored (the heat generated is checked which is a good indicator of when to turn the pile), harvested, applied to plants in the kitchen garden and some of it is sold by the children in organic markets. To further elaborate on the initiative of these enterprising children, I will move on to the next segment.

Pushing boundaries
Here I write about some of the unique initiatives of a few schools which I found striking, mostly because the efforts of the learning centres have gone beyond the scope of segregation, composting and recycling.

Making trash into treasure
Once students from Jeevan Shiksha Pahel at Muskaan started composting at school, they also initiated composting in their community, Ehsaan Nagar. The community composting process was anything but easy, but despite setbacks, the compost was harvested. Soon the children found an opportunity to sell some of this compost in the local organic market.

The students at SPV have also sold bioenzymes and compost made at the school to parents on occasions like parent-teacher meetings. The schoolteachers have also helped in having both these products tested at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi.

Compost being sold by students of Jeevan Shiksha Pahel at an Organic Mandi

Community clean ups
In the modified words of one educator, once trash changes from being invisible to visible for students on the campus, it begins to become visible at other places such as their community. Students from Puvidham and Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community have collected plastic from neighbouring villages, students from Rajghat Besant School, Varanasi and Sholai, Kodaikanal have taken part in river clean ups.

Children at Puvidham collecting plastic waste from neighbouring villages.
Children at Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community on a plastic waste collection drive.

Setting up a waste enterprise
Speaking of plastics, the Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community has taken large strides in tackling waste in the remote region of Arunachal Pradesh. Through Project Earth, children at Jhamtse are achieving the target of a zero-waste community. Uday Nair, a teacher at the school mentions that the idea is to expand the reach of the project to similar communities and set up a waste enterprise. One of the ideas includes setting up a plastic recycling unit in the community. He shares, “Dave Hakkens from PreciousPlastics.com has created a small-scale plastic recycling machine which has three components, a shredder, compressor and injection moulding. If you have the plastic types 1,2,4&5* segregated (based on RIC), with these machines you can recycle and create new objects depending on the mould.” The school has procured these machines with the help of a Netherlands based NGO Tibetfonds but haven’t been assembled yet due to the pandemic.

Components of the Dave Hakkens Plastic Recycling Machine at Jhamtse Gatsal Children’s Community

Reimagining construction waste
Krishna, co-founder at Thulir, a school in Sittlingi, mentions that construction waste has been used as a resource. The village often witnesses the construction of open wells which leads to a lot of construction debris, especially in the form of powdered and jagged stones. With the expertise of engineers, these are mixed with earth or mud concrete and are used in the construction of the school premises. Uneven granite pieces which are usually discarded at nearby granite factories are used for flooring in the school. The school also makes use of discarded Mangalore tiles for roofing and small pieces of steel are welded and used in steel fabrication.

The Shibumi community has also used non-recyclable waste such as thermocol in some of their construction activities.

Waste Granite pieces being used for flooring at Thulir

Room to recycle
A few schools have taken their efforts of working with dry/recyclable waste to the next level. Dolphin International School in Kashmir set up a ‘Makers Lab’ where students collected clean dry waste and created upcycled art installations with help from visiting facilitators. They also took the concept of Makers Lab back to their local neighbourhoods, where they collected dry waste and demonstrated how it can be upcycled.

Categories of dry waste segregated and stored at Sholai. An upcycling session in progress at the Makers Lab in Dolphin International School

At Sholai, Kodaikanal, Karuna Jenkins, Trustee, former teacher and student, shares that the segregated clean dry waste is collected and stored in a recycling room which has over 16 categories of dry waste such as soft and hard plastics, glass, toothpaste tubes and shoes stored. Repurposing and upcycling takes place using many of these items and students are assigned duties for the upkeep of this room.

Plant a seed
Several schools have also started kitchen gardens in their premises. Educators share how their students have witnessed the circle of life by watching their food waste turning into compost and then being used to grow food. This has changed the students’ outlook regarding waste and they don’t find dealing with waste dirty anymore.

Students involved in gardening at Jhamtse Gatsal and Prakriya Green Wisdom School

Not just solid waste
Some schools such as Thulir and Marudam also have dry compost toilets on their campus which converts the faecal matter into humanure in few months. Communities like Poorna, Shibumi and Jhamtse Gatsal also have wastewater management systems on their campus.

While I consecutively write and marvel at the efforts taken by these schools, I am also reminded of some of the challenges mentioned during our conversations. These challenges vary from school to school and are impacted by factors like geographical location, cultural context, access to infrastructure, etc.

A sense of belonging
As Lopa Shah, principal of a school in Kashmir shares, political presence in Kashmir affects students’ daily life. Students often do not feel a sense of belonging since there is always a risk to personal safety and health. The waste management project is an effort to help them understand their role in the community, their impact on it and vice-versa. However, due to constant disruptions in the form of the Jammu and Kashmir lockdown and now the pandemic the school has had to pause and restart its waste management plans.

Students involved in several activities at Dolphin International School

The nature of waste
Waste in our country is not just an environmental issue but also a social issue. This also affects the outlook that some students have when it comes to working with waste. As an educator shares, “Working with waste is considered menial among students and some teachers. It is so looked down upon that sometimes teachers don’t even pick up wastepaper from the ground to put it in the dustbin.” Parents in some schools have concerns over their children working with waste.

Access to infrastructure
Schools in rural areas and in the hills mention that they find it hard to responsibly handle their dry waste. The absence of local, government run waste management infrastructure means there is complete reliance on local scrap dealers. Since scrap dealers must prioritize transportation costs and maximize their sales, many types of waste such as certain types of plastic and glass often get left behind.

Pesky plastics
New forms of waste are regularly making an appearance in our lives. One such tricky form of packaging is – MLPs or multi layered plastics. These are commonly used packaging material in chips and biscuit wrappers, and they cannot be recycled. Hence most recyclers refuse to accept them. Many schools mentioned how this form of plastic is proving to be a tricky one to deal with and the efforts in the schools are always to reduce the usage of MLPs on their campuses.

Sholai is exploring new possibilities where the community has tried to use some plastics for road making. They are also working on technology that can help covert plastics into fuel.

Sanitary waste
Several schools also face the challenge of dealing with medical and sanitary waste. The latter, because of greater weight and volume, is a bigger issue. Some schools dig pits and fill this waste, others use incinerators to burn them and a few send it to the municipality where it eventually reaches dumping grounds. Reusable options such as cloth pads, menstrual cups and period panties are often recommended to menstruators, but their adoption takes a long time.

Students at Sardar Patel Vidyalaya creating ‘Red Dot’ bags for responsible disposal of sanitary waste

Students at Puvidham upcycle their used clothes and create washable and reusable cloth sanitary napkins for menstruators to use. Sardar Patel Vidyalaya has a system where newspaper bags are created by students for responsible disposal of sanitary waste.

The above challenges are just a snapshot of some unique situations that schools face when they embark on the ambitious project of responsible waste management. In addition to these there are often daily hurdles that the students, teachers, and staff on these waste management committees regularly face.

If we look deeper into how waste is traditionally managed in the societies surrounding these schools, we will witness practices like burning of waste, tossing it down the hill, adding it to the local drain or simply handing it all over to the local municipality.

Stewart Riddle, the Australian professor and author says, “Schools kind of work as a little microcosm of society, and you can tell a lot about a society from its schools.” When I look back at my memories of the littered quadrangle, I realize the responsible disposal of waste is just the visible part. What is often invisible is that such community efforts of these schools shift mindsets, change behaviours and provide unique skills to the individuals involved. One hopes we can learn something from these microcosms which are positively disrupting the societies they inhabit.

*Plastic is broadly coded in seven different categories based on a system called Resin Identification Code. Some of these categories such as 1,2,4,5 are easily recyclable. Categories such as 3,6,7 are not easily recyclable, some are even toxic.

The author is a workshop facilitator and project manager at Skrap, a sustainability social enterprise. She loves working with children, making art, and finding new ways to reduce waste. She can be reached at agarwal.shipra15@gmail.com.

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