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In Karaikal, India, a lack of proper infrastructure to manage its municipal solid waste was damaging the environment and threatening its residents' health and quality of life.
To combat this issue, Hand in Hand India (HiH India) a pan-Indian non-profit organisation promoting sustainable development, developed the "Recycle for Life" initiative. Engaging with locals, HiH India helps them to understand the issues better. They also recruit and train sanitation workers as "Green Friends", who then collect waste door to door and teach residents how to segregate it.
These efforts have helped change behaviours and mindsets toward waste management. Where once 100% of all municipal waste went to landfills, 85% of it is now being recycled or composted, bringing positive change to both the environment and the communities.
Karaikal’s littered past
For many years, Karaikal, a seaside town on the south coast of India, had a waste crisis on its hands. A lack of a solid waste management infrastructure saw garbage scattered across the landscape. A situation that afflicts many other cities in India as well. The waste impacts the environment and also threatens the people who live there.
"People collecting rubbish in plastic bags and throwing them wherever they go was common. The rubbish got carried by the winds, and garbage was found everywhere," bemoans local resident K. Mala.The rubbish that is not collected and treated can pose several problems. Plastic waste in the sea can break down into microplastics and affect sea life. Non-biodegradable waste can contaminate a community's drinking water sources.
"Garbage gets accumulated in one place, and when the pile gets big, they burn it. The smoke that emanates from this pile-up is harmful to health," shares Mala.
“Recycle for Life” with the Green Friends
This situation was what drove Hand in Hand India (HiH India), a pan-Indian non-profit organisation that promotes sustainable development, to engage with Karaikal’s locals in changing mindsets, driving behavioural change in their waste management approach.
“Smaller towns like Karaikal lack the adequate infrastructure to process its solid waste. Along with a lack of awareness among residents, it created a huge environmental problem”, reports Amuda Shekharan from HIHI.
“As every household is generating rubbish, the success of any waste management program would depend on the behavioural and mindset change in the community.”
In November 2016, HiH India implemented a waste management program called “Recycle for Life”, which strives for maximum waste recovery through composting, recycling and reuse. This process minimises the amount of waste in landfills; it requires the waste to be segregated at the start, making sure organic waste like food scraps is not dumped together with recyclables like plastic bottles.
A key pillar of this model is the Green Friends initiative, which recruits and trains sanitation workers involved in the door-to-door collection, transportation and processing of municipal solid waste.
“As the Green Friends go to collect garbage on a daily basis, they get to build rapport with the female members of the household who are tasked with all major domestic duties such as taking out the trash,” Amuda shares.
“This has allowed the Green Friends to effectively communicate the importance of segregating their household waste, and to strengthen the changes in behaviour and mindset that they have been able to promote.”
Reduce Reuse Recycle: Karaikal leads the way
Karaikal’s efforts at community-led waste segregation have seen very encouraging results, as 50% of households have agreed to segregate their waste before handing it over to the local Green Friends teams.
“Karaikal generates about forty-one thousand kilograms of waste on a daily basis”, Amuda shares, “Of the waste collected, only about 10 to 15 per cent of it ends up at the landfill. The rest is either organic waste converted into compost or materials like plastics and metals that we send to recyclers.”
Mala, who serves the community as a member of the Green Friends, has observed this transformation, “Earlier people considered garbage only as garbage. But now they are segregated and made into fertilisers and recycled. It is not seen as only garbage anymore as it is used in many ways. Now that it is collected from house to house, littering has reduced.”
While waste dumping and open burning continue to be the principal disposal methods in most places in India, Karaikal is a remarkable transformation of hope for environmental protection and sustainability for the rest of the country.
“The behavioural and mindset change among the community was a major factor for the success of this project,” says Amuda, “Every individual has to come forward for a better future. Our children should have a better life tomorrow.”
Being a Green Friend has also given Mala a sense of ownership in the future of the community.
“Now the community feels that things are much better – the lakes are clean, garbage gets collected from homes, so as such they have no problems. They like the work we do for their protection and now they talk highly of the work we do.” says Mala.
“We need to keep Karaikal as clean as it is now. That is my desire too.”
About Hand in Hand India (HiH India)
Hand in Hand India (HiH India) is a pan-Indian non-profit organisation set up in 2002 that promotes sustainable development. HiH India works to empower women, educate children, create healthcare access, combat climate change and create jobs. Their award-winning “Recycle for Life” model of solid waste management has been initiated in eleven districts across seven states in India.