It was by sheer chance that Shirshendu Sekhar Das, a PhD student in astrophysics, came across a short video that changed the way he saw the world, and eventually the course of his life. The impact of the video – which showed how plastic waste on Midway Island in the North Pacific Ocean affected the lives of albatrosses – was so powerful that the 29-year-old decided to quit his PhD and work for the environment.
Three years later, Das now leads a small team working to reduce waste in Guwahati, the largest city in northeast India and growing fast. The team works by decentralising the management and disposal of the estimated 627 tons of solid waste produced in the city daily.
“That short trailer opened my eyes to an environmental problem I had not known existed at such a biblical scale. What I learnt shook me, and I wanted to take action,” Das told The Third Pole.
“I had been following the work of the environmentalist Afroz Shah, who is known for the world’s largest ever beach clean-up in Mumbai.” Das recalled a fateful stroll on the Brahmaputra riverbank in the Uzanbazar area of Guwahati, where he found himself “wading through a sea of plastic”. He immediately organised a clean-up, with nearly 20 people gathering to pick plastic trash from the riverbank. “And that’s when the discussion began.”
Sorting Guwahati’s waste
The Midway Journey – named after the Midway Island video – brings together environmentally conscious citizens from all walks of life, from architecture and commerce to middle school for the youngest members. So far, the team has organised 53 clean-up drives, involving more than 1,000 participants and collecting around 5,000 kg of waste.
In 2020, the group started an experimental project to encourage citizens to segregate their waste, a practice that is still alien to the people of Guwahati. The ‘Power of 300’ initiative invites people to hand over recyclable plastics, which the team collects door-to-door and sells to the city’s recycling centre, distributing the profit among local ragpickers.
“Waste has value,” said Das, who started the project to keep the streets clean and support the ragpickers during the lockdown forced by the Covid-19 pandemic. The initiative, he hopes, will “also help the citizens understand the value of segregation.”
Within six months, more than 350 Guwahati households started segregating, cleaning and storing their dry waste for recycling. So far, more than 90 kg of low-value recyclable plastics have been collected, equivalent to approximately 85,000 pieces of plastic.
Source segregation is the key, said Dilip Das, who runs a small recycling factory processing the waste collected under the Power of 300 experiment. “If we can start cleaning our waste, say milk and oil packets at the source, it saves a lot of waste from going to landfill, and there are more chances of it getting recycled there. It saves money and time.”
Rescuing people and a wetland
If the project is successful, it will also help to address the issue of the swelling city’s landfill which has severe environmental and health impacts.
Located on the eastern side of Deepor Beel – a famous wetland that is a Ramsar site of global importance – the Boragaon landfill is where the Guwahati Municipal Corporation dumps the city’s garbage.
Mubina Akhtar, a Guwahati-based environmentalist, said that despite being a protected site, “continuous encroachment has reduced this wetland to one fourth of its original size”, and with the area being the city’s dumping site, its soil is now degraded.
An inspection conducted by a judicial member of the National Green Tribunal found that waste was being dumped not beyond the site but within it, and demarcations are made by drying out areas or cutting off water sources. “These are classic ways of killing a wetland and turning it from a wet to a dry ecosystem, or from a lake to a cesspool,” Akhtar said.
The landfill is a dangerous place for the 100-odd families who make a living by separating waste. “Waste is being dumped without any treatment,” said Aveepsa Gogoi, a development professional with the National Resource Organisation in Thiruvananthapuram, and a member of The Midway Journey.
“Ragpickers work in hazardous conditions just to be able to afford their basic needs,” Gogoi said. “This takes away their dignity.”
Since the ragpickers are highly susceptible to disease due to the nature of their work, The Midway Journey team aims to make the waste collection process more hygienic by providing them with uniforms, gloves and identity cards to recognise their efforts. It also arranges for health insurance benefits.
The goal of Power of 300 is to decentralise waste collection by addressing small pockets of the city first, to make the most of the organisation’s relatively small capacity. “Our immediate plan is to introduce Power of 300 in residential complexes and in schools,” Shirshendu Das said, adding that it is important for children to learn the value of waste management early in life. “We are hoping to rope in at least 10 schools by this year and connect schools and residential areas to the nearest scrap dealers.”
“Through our work we want to show citizens and government alike that it is possible to have such an organised system in place. I believe we will eventually receive support from the Guwahati Municipal Corporation and the government, because they will benefit from it. The city will get cleaner.”