A lesson in reducing waste from India

5 June 2019

As I emerged from my taxi into the bustling city of Hyderabad, I felt an immediate assault to the senses. Loud, smelly, chaotic, vibrant – it was hard to take in the scene before me. India was certainly living up to the stereotype.

Working with Ernst & Young and the British High Commission, I was there as an expert, sharing best practice from the UK on the circular economy and effective waste prevention strategies with the key representatives from the cities of Hyderabad and Coimbatore.

And yet – as time progressed, I was forced to reflect on how the UK ‘does waste’ compared to India. While we obsess with technical solutions (waste to energy, recycling innovation), India excels at a behavioural and cultural level. And while our efforts are focused on the lower end of the waste hierarchy, there’s are firmly on the higher reduce and reuse components that are seemingly unattainable in the UK. For example:

1. Meet the Kabadiwalla

A Kabadiwalla is an informal door to door salesman who buys and sells redundant items and packaging be it metal, paper, card and so on. One man’s waste is another man’s riches… While we cannot gloss over the poverty aspect – many of these people are poorer members of society, they offer a valuable service; so valuable that it’s something that Hyderabad are looking to formalise to ensure these self-employed workers are paid enough, have health insurance and the basic equipment.

2. Reusing paint, furniture and so on

Early on, a distinct ‘titter’ indicated that my slides on the UK success stories around reusing paint and furniture were actually laughable in a country like India. While us British err on the consumerist side, choosing shiny, new items over second hand choices, in India it simply doesn’t happen. Paint does not get wasted. It gets used or sold. Clothes get worn, handed down and eventually used as rags. There’s no need for a ‘textile take back’ programme. Nor a paint reuse scheme.

A decommissioned building is stripped in a matter of days – valuable materials reused, repurposed or sold driving money back into the economy and preventing the majority of items from ending up in landfill.

3. A culture of repairing things

Then there are the repair shops that are literally on every street corner. Things that get broken are fixed, not thrown away. The age of some vehicles on the road and collections of spare parts in roadside stores, shows the demand for repair is huge.

Don’t get me wrong. Clearly there are problems. Litter is a major issue. Non-recyclable plastics, food and product packaging is often dumped on the basis it holds little or no value. The formalised infrastructure just isn’t there yet.

But after I imparted best practice from the UK – the technological solutions that support better recycling and more circular approaches, I couldn’t help but reflect on the journey home: the issues they have may be solved a lot more easily than those that we struggle with in the Western world. The task of building sealed landfills and recycling facilities to reduce litter and prevent waste entering water courses, seems a whole lot easier than a cultural shift around consumerism, reuse and repair.

Perhaps the time has come for an Indian contingent to visit the UK shores, imparting its best practice on creating a cultural revolution.