An environmentalist with a plastics manufacturing business and a sustainability podcast, Samarth Sheth is no stranger to the knee-jerk criticism that inevitably follows these descriptors. Sheth’s understanding of plastics, and his efforts towards creating zero-waste neighbourhoods however tell the story of someone deeply committed to achieving a sustainable future, one society at a time.
Photo courtesy: Samarth Sheth
“Whether we like it or not, plastic is here to stay. It saves huge amounts of carbon footprint in terms of transportation, preserving food, extending its shelf life, etc. The real problem is our habits.” he says.
Indeed, the ongoing pandemic has fueled plastic demand and pollution. Single-use plastics have been at the forefront of our efforts to protect ourselves, be it surgical masks or PPE. This, combined with a shift towards disposable items over reusable due to hygiene concerns only projects an upward curve in the demand and use of plastics in everyday life.
However, our plastic disposal habits have failed to keep up.
“You and I may be well aware of how history, geography, marketing works, but we’re really not aware of how our waste really works. We are not taught this, so it’s not our fault.” he says.
Sheth has been to landfills to understand where our waste goes, and who depends on it for their livelihood.
Photo courtesy: Piqsels
“The first level of segregation actually happens in the van where people put the dry waste aside and let the wet waste go inside the compressor van. The secondary point of segregation is when it goes to the landfill. That level of segregation is usually done by 10-12-year-old kids. They take away the recyclable material and sell it for their daily living. If we can segregate all our waste ﹘ after we order in, if we can clean the PVC containers used properly with water and dispose it in the dustbin, when it goes to the landfill, imagine that 10-12 year old, rather than going through our sanitary napkins and used diapers, needles, etc. can just get hold of a bag that has fantastic dry waste which gives them value in the market. You are helping that kid get out of the landfill sooner than they would be, keeping them from harm’s way.”
Segregating and cleaning our waste can also help our local raddiwalas. Sheth explains how the process takes place in Bombay with the example of one of the most widely and frequently used commodities ﹘ milk.
“In Bombay, the milk packets we get from Amul or Mahanand were initially collected over time and sold to the raddiwala, who would give you value for it. Then the person who collected the kachra from the raddiwala was not able to collect the waste for two months for personal reasons Now if the smallest amount of milk is left over in the packet, it will start stinking up the entire area, and bacteria will collect inside it. Real estate is sparse in Bombay. So the raddiwala had to store the milk packets for two months in a very small place with barely any sunlight. You can imagine the smell it generated. So the entire process stopped.”
Sheth even has a simple video tutorial on how to clean our milk packets, as seen below.
There’s also an economic case for segregation driven by the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC), the governing civic body of Mumbai. The BMC’s policy gives “15% property tax rebate to housing societies for segregating their waste, processing wet waste on their premises, disposing dry waste through recyclers, and using harvested rainwater or greywater.” Societies following any one criterion get a 5% rebate, while those following two get a 10% rebate, and those that follow all three get 15% rebate.
The impetus on citizens and societies, and the impact they can have on shaping plastic disposal habits if educated on the cause, drove Sheth to start Kachra-nomics, an initiative that attempts to create zero-waste societies and neighbourhoods.
“Essentially I started Kachra-nomics to disseminate information about how we can become zero-waste and how we can benefit from this.”
Sheth highlights the Pali Hill Residents Association’s transition to a zero-waste producing society. “In the case of Pali Hill Residents Association, there are 101 buildings. About 3000 families got together and represented their interest to the BMC. The BMC, the bio compost manufacturer and the Pali Hill Residents’ Association got together and said let’s make this work.” he says.
He has since taken to advising other societies on how to go the zero-waste route, across Mumbai. This has presented its own challenges, unsurprisingly.
“To unify the mindset of people in societies towards a particular mission is not an easy task. To get a cumulative of societies is itself a mammoth task. But once you have that power of unity, the BMC is more than happy, because their work reduces drastically. They don’t have to transport entire trucks with your garbage to a landfill 20 km away. Once you get unity within the society, you create champions who bring on more neighbouring societies on board and once you have a critical mass, you can easily set up something like a bio composter. That unity, and hence, the spreading of awareness is extremely critical.” Sheth explains.
When asked about low-income neighbourhoods and how a kachra-nomics model would work in Bombay’s slums, Sheth had this to say.
Kachra near a nala. Photo courtesy: Samarth Sheth
“Have you ever visited any of the slums in Bombay? There is barely enough space for two motorbikes to pass through. Having a BMC truck to go there and collect the waste is practically impossible.”
In this scenario, the best bet, he says, would be to sensitize our domestic help on why waste segregation can be beneficial.
He reminds us of the ‘Mera Baba Desh Chalata Hai’ video, a moving account of a sanitation worker as told by his son for a school speech.
“The message of that video is also to segregate waste. When I first showed my domestic help the video, she shrugged it off. But on another day, I was the one who put something in the dustbin in a hurry and she stopped me saying, “Bhaiyya it goes in this dustbin, not that one.”
The video was part of a #TwoBinsLifeWins campaign by Tata Trusts under 'Mission Garima' to promote safe, healthy and humane working conditions for conservancy workers in Mumbai.
A bottle collection center in Bandra. Photo courtesy: Samarth Sheth
While India currently only has two bins, dry and wet waste, other countries have been more rigorous in their approach to waste disposal.
“Japan for instance has 37 bins. Luxembourg has 12 bins. Germany has 12-15 bins, and it also has specific days for collection of furniture, for instance.”
So should India have more bins than it presently does?
“Logically speaking, there would be dry waste — within dry waste there are various types of segregation like cans, metals, plastic bottle caps, LDPE, newspapers. In wet waste, you have organic food. But to give you perspective, plastics, metal, paper, wet waste, e-waste — these many bins are the bare minimum. Again, there are certain bins that may not fill up as much as others like e-waste. There are ways to dispose of those as well— I advise a company called THRECO – The Recycling Company, that sets up bins across the city, and does waste drives as well. There’s a truck which collects all e-waste if you keep it at a particular point. Another society I advised in Lokhandwala has set up an e-waste bin. So when it fills up, there’s a company called Ecoreco that comes and picks it up.” Sheth answers.
The government has also played a role in encouraging waste management, according to Sheth. He tells us about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation, which exists to instill accountability in plastics manufacturers to collect back and recycle the plastic they produce.
“Let us say I’m a brand-owner like Pepsi or Coke and I’m sending out packaging of about 100 kgs a day. It is my responsibility to collect back these 100 kgs. So once you as a consumer have used the Pepsi or Coke bottle, it becomes my responsibility as a manufacturer to get it back from you and get it to the recycling stream.”
The initiative, while a step in the right direction, has thrown up several logistical complications.
“If I distribute in 29 states and 7 union territories, how do I get the plastic back in good condition? If I’m a Pepsi, can I collect back Coke bottles also? And if I do, what happens to Coke bottles? If I collect back 100 kgs, and Coke collects back 100 kgs, but in my 100kgs, there’s 10 kgs of Coke bottles, what happens to them? Coke and Pepsi distribute in tonnes. When Coke sends out 5000 bottles, these go to various distributors who send 5 bottles to 1 dealer, 2 to another, 15 to another, and so on. That kind of system is a challenge.” Sheth explains.
A bottle collection center in Bandra. Photo courtesy: Samarth Sheth
Apart from this, the EPR law has many other ambiguities including streamlining and regulation of the informal sector (waste pickers and raddiwalas), Multi-Layered Packaging (MLP) recycling, and logistical challenges in registration for companies with a multi-state presence.
Sheth does not shy away from highlighting the good work businesses are doing, however. ITC’s ‘Well-being out of Waste’ (WOW) initiative under their Corporate Social Responsibility program has attempted to create awareness about the importance of waste segregation, and collaborated with local municipalities to train waste pickers, to help establish an efficient collection system. Apart from this, they also work to engage self-help groups and promote home composting.
You would be sorely remiss to think Sheth’s enthusiasm for the environment starts and ends with effective waste management. His podcast, Sustainability Weekly is his attempt to spread awareness about the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and how we may achieve them. Prakriti Srivastava, Country Director, WCS-India, has also appeared on the podcast to discuss the importance of wildlife corridors.
Sustainability Weekly’s origins lie in a scuba diving trip Sheth took to the Maldives that ended in horror over the severity of coral bleaching in our oceans.
Samarth laying the anchor for snorkeling. Photo courtesy: Samarth Sheth
“My wife and I were snorkeling on an uninhabited island, and we saw this reef extending from 3 m below sea level to about 23 m below sea level. My wife comes out in the middle and says, “Are my glasses fogged?” I said, “It’s not your glasses that are fogged, the entire coral is bleached. Had I come just about a year ago, this reef would’ve been extremely colourful and filled with life. But the entire thing was bleached. I came out and thought, how can I make a difference?” he narrates.
When Sheth explored the space, he quickly realized that sustainability podcasts in India were few and far between.
“Being an avid listener of podcasts since 2016, I realized that in India, nobody is talking about sustainability at all. There are podcasts on lifestyle, fashion, shopping, recipes, but just one on sustainability — Recykal Rise, a Hyderabad-based podcaster who does great work. But as a country of 1.3 billion people, in comparison with the US and UK, which have tonnes of sustainability podcasts, India had just the one. So I took the step.”
Finally, we asked him what his plans were in the near future. “I’m not starting anything new but whenever societies ask me to advise them, I definitely help out. And the podcast of course is going to continue.”
You can listen to Sustainability Weekly through the links below:
By Aashika Ravi