Gangtok, gear up for waste reduction and segregation
Next time you pass “32 No.” between Ranipul and Singtam, and the overpowering stench of rotting waste from the dumping site below threatens to choke you, take a deeper breath and smell it. Let the stench fill your lungs. You should own the smell, after all, it is something you have helped create - bucket by bucket and truck by truck. You have contributed everyday in the making of Gangtok’s very own Mt. Landfill, and it is a testimony of our wasteful lifestyles, that all of us will leave behind for our children. So what you smell is not only the waste, it is also the rot emanating of our faulty systems and practices.
If you have the courage, also go down the dusty road that leads to the dumping site, to see what it looks like, up close. You can choose to take a walk on the pile of garbage that goes rather deep from the surface. Check if the waste items on the pile could have belonged to you someday; something you might have thrown over the year or the past many years - Maybe the plastic bottles of water or coke, or an old pair of shoes or a chips packet or it could be the half cabbage which you thought was too wilted to cook.
You might have thrown it away from your home, but you can be certain, that all your waste would be lying there at the dump site. There is no such thing as ‘away’, whenever we throw something, it has to go somewhere. Sadly, for us in Gangtok, this stinking ever growing landfill site which is somebody’s backyard, has been our ‘away’.
OF LOSING BATTLES!
Every morning 30 - 35 truckloads of waste arrive from Gangtok, Pakyong, Rangpo and Singtam at the dumping site, and are emptied one after another on top of the heap that is already there. Knee - deep in waste, as the trucks are emptied, workers scramble to segregate whatever they can get their hands on from the messy piles - plastic items, glass bottles, metal items, rubber, paper, etc. Womenfolk even segregate kitchen waste such as leftover rice and vegetable peels. to be used as animal feed. A large portion of what is disposed has value and can be recycled, and at the landfill site, this is the most apparent fact that one can come to understand. Recycling of used stuff means we can save on all the virgin resources and the pollution it would create to make things new from scratch. However, only a miniscule portion of the recyclable waste can be segregated under the present conditions by the people who work at the dumping site, and for them, it is a losing battle every day.
A much larger battle faced, however, is against the non-recyclable waste that is ever increasing in our daily use and being trashed at an unprecedented rate. The dumping site is choked with items that have absolutely no disposal solutions - the multi-layered plastic, tetrapaks, styrofoam, plastic cups, sanitary pads, diapers, etc. the list is dreadfully long. Single use items, or items that have to be thrown after being used just once are more and more being forced on consumers to keep the materials flowing. These products of faulty design systems are pushed through artificially created demands supported by clever advertising strategies, that we as customers simply fail to see through. Mindlessly, we use these products for a few days, and throw it. Add to this the massive volume of electronic waste and domestic hazardous waste, and the landfill is a ticking timebomb.
Man and machine, then work together to compress and pack all the mixed waste together. Already the waste load has been pushed right up till the river’s edge, from where the pile towers up, and the top is flattened with the help of an excavator. If one looks up from the river bed, the pile of garbage is easily as high as a 6 storey building. It is a losing battle for both man and machine as they chug their way to pack the waste into corners, and each week the pile keeps growing higher. Even if they are able to somewhat contain the height of the waste dump, the leachate, which is the toxic liquid that comes out from all the different types of waste reacting with each other, flows a thick yellow and brown into the river, that runs right next to the dumping site. A losing battle for Rani Khola and all the life it supports.(which by the way, eventually comes right back to us in the form of the river fishes that we buy along the highway).
GANGTOK’S WASTE YATRA
Gangtok wakes up early to the sound of the bells rung by the garbage collectors who come on garbage trucks, signaling people to bring their waste to the road for pick up. This now commonly heard sound, heralded the beginning of a new system in waste management for Gangtok. Around the late 90s, plagued by irresponsible waste dumping in jhoras and roadsides, the State Government took a couple of bold decisions that brought a sea of change in Gangtok’s waste situation, and it all started with a ban on the use of plastic bags. An amendment in the ‘Sikkim Trade License & Miscellaneous Provisions (Amendment Rules, 1998)’ that disallowed traders from the use of plastic bags for giving out their goods, brought down plastic bag usage drastically in the state, and this initiative helped build Sikkim’s green image. (How effective the ban is now currently, is debatable, especially in light of the fact that it has been replaced by another form of plastic- the non woven polypropylene, but that is another story.)
Removal of all garbage vats in the town area to counter the problem of waste accumulation and night dumping, backed by household waste collection service using vehicles as well as human resource was then initiated. Heavy penalties were announced for instances of dumping waste in jhoras. The success of the collection system brought about by the support of a fleet of around dedicated 90 waste workers and cooperation of Gangtok’s residents, has been replicated in other major towns over the years. The town also got its first litter and spit free zone in the form of a brand new MG Marg.
In 2016, two significant decisions aimed at reduction in waste volume were announced by the State Government. One notified a statewide ban on the use of polystyrene disposable cutlery, which is non recyclable as well as a health hazard (commonly known as thermocol) , and the other on not using plastic bottled water in Government functions. Both these notifications, though still having huge implementation challenges mainly due to lack of awareness, nonetheless show the government’s will to lead the way in following the principle of reduce.
Gangtok’s decision to become sparkling clean has been lauded plenty of times by the Central Government, and the UDHD/ GMC have been the recipient of a number of Clean City awards. However, the 2016 assessment conducted by Center for Science and Environment that took a holistic look at how cities manage their waste, going beyond collection, transport and landfills, had a very different story to tell. Of the 3 categories of ranking for cities, Gangtok was placed in the 3rd best category, which meant that the city only looked at collection and transport, but had not taken the next step of actually managing its waste. This assessment by one of the country’s top environment organisation could be a dampener for the State’s green image, and should set alarm bells ringing for Gangtok and the state.
Broom wielding VIPs randomly sweeping the streets is the first thing that come to people’s minds when asked about the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM), which has been one of the most talked about programmes of the Government of India. Contribute in keeping the neighbourhood clean, make use of dustbins, do not litter - these are the main messages that SBM has so far propounded. But the notion of ‘swachhta’ being equated only with keeping the streets clean and making proper use of dustbins is one that needs to be rethought and redefined.
In a resource finite planet grappling with issues such as that of over extraction, pollution, and climate change, the current linear system of production, consumption and disposal is highly unsustainable. This is a no brainer! But to choose to continue mindlessly along this same path, even after having understood all the implications, is a serious fallacy.
Where is the waste from the dustbins eventually ending up? Could we have prevented the generation of waste in the first place by choosing other safer, local and healthier options? At an individual level, can we all be mindful of the products we use and make a conscious move to choose those that are safer- for us and the planet, and reduce the use of those products we can easily do without? Extended producer responsibility that hold manufacturers responsible for disposal of their products are initiatives that the government must think of at their level, if we are to reduce the waste going down to the landfill site. Swachh in its truest sense should therefore mean something beyond mere disposal of waste in dustbins, and address the larger issue of ‘responsible production and consumption’. This being one of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, holds great relevance for Sikkim, which is well on its way to enact a legislation on sustainable development.
Gangtok, take the first step. Segregate!!
For Gangtok and other towns in the state, that have overcome the challenging problem of household waste collection, and have established efficient systems of pick up and transport, waste segregation at source is the logical next step. Sure there have been earlier attempts at household segregation that have not been successful. Dustbins were distributed and some basic training were conducted. Following this, when residents of a few wards practised segregation in earnest, they were disheartened to see their efforts go to vain when their segregated waste ended up being collected in the same truck, and transported down to the same dump site. With no system in place to backup the segregation at source being practiced, the entire exercise was a sure failure.
But a lot has happened in between the initial attempts and now, both at National and State level. Segregation at source has now been made mandatory by law under the new Solid Waste Management Rules of 2016. Municipalities also have been given the power to initiate take back mechanisms and explore extended producer responsibility with manufacturers. The same rules also spell out that all non- recyclable packaging have to be phased out by companies by 2018.
Within the state, at the 32 No. dumping site, a new sanitary landfill has been constructed which has been recently inaugurated. This sanitary landfill, which shall be used for only the ultimate discards, is lined with a thick impermeable layer that prevents the leachate from entering into the groundwater and contaminating it. The leachate collected is supposed to be treated before being released into the water system. Plans for composting biodegradable waste have also been formulated. The Gangtok Municipal Corporation (GMC) has laid out plans in place to strongly support segregation at source by the requisite step of segregated collection of waste, with designated days for collection of biodegradable and non biodegradable waste. For, no longer can we have residents making the effort to segregate their waste, only to find it being collected and mixed together in the same truck. Arithang ward, which is one of the most populated ward in the GMC has paved the way at source segregation, and they have shown that with some thought and planning, it is possible.
“From January 2018, only segregated waste shall be accepted by the garbage trucks, and the waste workers are authorised to return all unsegregated waste. Also, all garbage trucks that bring mixed waste shall no longer be allowed to enter the 32 No. landfill site” - GMC Commissioner, Mr. Tshewang Gyachho, has clearly stated in a meeting organised with the agencies that are responsible for waste collection at every ward.
Here, we also need to break the myth, that for segregation to happen, we need to be provided with buckets by the GMC. Segregation of dry recyclable waste (cardboard, plastic, glass, metal, paper) can be done easily using old sacks or cardboard boxes, the hazardous waste can be in another sack, and a bucket used for the biodegradable waste which is generally the wet part of the waste.
Segregation of waste is the primary step to be taken if any proper system of waste management is to be established, following which many other things will fall into place. First, all recyclables can be recovered and linked with scrap dealers to be sent for recycling. Second, from the segregated biodegradable waste, various methods of composting could be tried out - at household level or community level. Let’s remember that composting is a natural process. Everything that is biodegradable shall decompose over time. It is only when they get mixed with the non-biodegradable items that problems arise. So if we keep the two separate, we can compost even at our own homes using simple methods.
Third and most importantly, the new landfill site has been calculated to have only a lifespan of 17 years - this holds true if it receives only the ultimate discards, (which is around 10 percent of the total waste), and the rest of the waste are composted, recycled and reduced. With a business as usual scenario of no segregation and waste generation in the same manner and same volume, the new landfill site will not even last 5 years, and we will soon be needing another area to dump our trash. Do we have the luxury of that other piece of land, which would again be somebody else’s backyard to pollute?- is a question that needs to be asked.
Finally, it needs to be reiterated that segregation is only one piece in the entire waste management ecosystem. Besides segregation, serious efforts for waste reduction has to happen, both at individual level by each one of us making the right choices and living a healthy, green lifestyle, and at a macro level through adequate policy support.
So what Gangtok needs now desperately are champions who will lead the way and show the rest that segregation is simple and doable. Champions who will also show that waste reduction is possible at every step. Large waste generators such as hotels and restaurants should be strictly required to take measures to reduce and segregate their waste. Elected representatives, especially ward councilors and Government Officials must embrace the cause of segregation and waste reduction, and encourage others to follow. To begin with, why can’t all our Government and school functions be zero wasted to make sure that nothing ends up going to the landfill? If Schools and Government Departments also reduce and segregate, it would be an effective medium to spread awareness on segregation right down to household level.
So Gangtok, Take the first step! Reduce and Segregate.
[Zero Waste Himalaya Group is a platform of organizations working across the Sikkim Darjeeling Landscape that advocates for sustainable waste management practices. Priya Shrestha is with WWF- India and Roshan Rai works with DLR - Prerna, Darjeeling.]