Insight from Civil Society Engaging
with Science and Technology
Zero Waste- A New Approach
in Resource Management
Shibu K. Nair
Waste/garbage has become a
point of discussion and a fuel for worry all over the world in the last few
decades. Where ever we travel we see mountains of putrefying waste with poor
children playing around, rag pickers trying to segregate some saleable discards
and dogs and cattle munching on some rotten food. Government is forced to spend
crores of rupees for waste management, creating problems for communities,
destroying the water sources and without being able to find a long lasting
solution. Studies have shown the ecological, social and health impacts related
to waste dumping and disposal.
What do we do with this waste?
The question echoes every where. Many now realize that the question should have
been 'why do we have this waste?'Since the question was wrong we got the wrong
answers - incineration, mixed waste composting, land filling-which lead to
contamination of our environment, loss of precious resources and livelihood. It
is high time to think in terms of resource conservation since we are facing
severe shortage of resources.
Zero Waste a new approach
Zero waste is a logical
planning approach incorporating principles of effective human and material
resource utilization to avoid the conversion of discards into waste- an
inefficient form- in a manner that revitalizes the local economy.
The mounting waste is symbol of
inefficiency and failure of mankind who couldn't conserve and share the
resources on earth with other living beings. Energy and matter are circulated in
a cyclical manner in nature which sustains life on earth. Billions of living
things and non living things are part of this cycle.
We negate these cycles and
interrupt them. The extraction, production, transportation, consumption and
wasting processes are linear. When we cut the cycles it causes resource
depletion on one end and mounting of toxic waste on the other end.
The 'take, make and waste'
mentality that has guided our economy for decades must be replaced by the
desirable and visionary goal of zero waste. Our human economy is undeniably
dependant on Nature's economy.
Story of Zero Waste
After the Second World War the
anti war movement in Europe and USA wanted to sustain the movement for social
change. The first thing they picked was recycling of bottles. And in no time
recycling became a trend, fashion and mantra. This recycling movement compelled
setting of targets for diverting discards from land fills to recycling
facilities. In Australia people got tired of sending their waste to landfills
which were turning to the size of airports. They started campaigns against
landfill. They set a target for 100% diversion from landfills. They could
attain it to some extent. New Zealanders came to know about it and they invited
one of the councilors from Australia to do a presentation in New Zealand.
Inspired by the Australian experiments, New Zealand government decided to go for
100% diversion from land fill and they coined a word 'Zero Waste'. It happened
in 1995 and they targeted 'Zero Waste by 2020'.
Components of Zero Waste
Principles of Zero Waste
The recycling fever generated
many R's like recycle, reuse, repair, reconstruct….. The idea of Zero Waste
broadened the canvas to another dimension and shifted the focus from waste to
resources. Thus formed its guiding principles the'3 E's' namely Ethics,
Efficiency and Economics.
Zero Waste suggests ethical use
of resources for the larger good and sustenance. It reiterates the need for a
social change to incorporate the ways of nature into our culture (for
Scarce resources have to be
utilized wisely. People have to be efficient in resource conservation and
resource utilization. Sustainable materials have to be identified, efficient
production techniques have to be devised, and efficient consumption patterns
have to be followed. Zero Waste pushes for efficiency at all levels.
Economics is the result of
ethical and efficient utilization of resources. Economy is not mere private
profit. It means more livelihoods, more jobs, and more income for more people.
Clean production is a way of designing
products and manufacturing processes in harmony with natural ecological cycles.
It aims to eliminate toxic waste and inputs and ultimately promotes the
judicious use of renewable energy and materials.
It is the principle that
producers bear a degree of responsibility for all environmental impacts of their
products. This includes upstream impacts arising from the choice of materials
and from the manufacturing process and downstream impacts, from the use and
disposal of products. Producers accept their responsibility when they accept
legal, physical, or economic responsibility for the environmental impacts that
cannot be eliminated by design.
It aims at substituting the toxic
and unsustainable materials with locally available and eco friendly sustainable
materials. Capacity building at community level for better ideas, products and
material use practices, capacity building at Government level for making
policies to promote better materials and services.
It is the sum total of thoughts, systems
and practices designed for efficient recovery of resources to close the loop of
resource flow. It includes segregation at source, recycling, re use, repairing,
re construction, re furnishing….and composting.
Resource Recovery Facilities
have to be created for sorting, cleaning, storing and streamlining the flow of
resources back to production process. Incorporation of people of unorganized
sectors like scrap workers into this system will make it efficient and smooth.
The key element of zero waste is
participation. Each and everyone in the society should have a space and role in
a zero waste community for resource conservation and resource recovery. Zero
Waste is a creative and positive process. Involvement of people should be
ensured from planning level to implementation.
There should be policies at Government and
institutional level to prevent wasting processes. Policies such as promotion of
durable and reusable goods against disposable goods, incentives for resource
conservation, etc. need to be incorporated.
Waste is also a symbol of broken
relations in our society. It also reveals lack of trust. Community development
and community building is possible only through better personal and societal
relationships. Zero Waste keeps a space for greater interaction between
individuals, communities and institutions.
Zero waste provides for
infinite and creative ideas rooted in ecology. Exploring these challenges
creativity and when creativity emerges waste disappears to zero. From mere
resource management to life style, culture, building relationships and linking
everyone to this earth and its life supporting systems.
Zero Waste Kovalam-
Translating Theory into Practice
increasing prominence since the 1980s as a tourist destination has transformed
this South Indian coastal state's landscape. Unfortunately, the growth in
infrastructure to accommodate and entertain tourists was unplanned and done in
the absence of regulatory infrastructure to deal with the fall-outs of tourism.
The most visible manifestation of this inadequacy is the mounds of garbage, and
plastic-clogged cesspools that mar the otherwise breath-taking beauty of Kerala.
In 1999, when the Kerala Tourism Department proposed an incinerator to address
the garbage crisis, the local residents, Thanal and other environmental groups
rose up in protest against the proposal. While the incinerator proposal was
shelved, the garbage problem remained. Plans were afoot to truck the garbage to
a location 25 km away. It was then that Zero Waste Kovalam was born to not
merely address the garbage problem, but to also change the mindset of
regulators, industry and common people about their mistaken notion that garbage
the vocabulary of public interest activists, the term "waste" had
already been replaced by "discards" to differentiate between the items
in the trash that could be safely recovered in one form or the other
(resources), and the unsustainable material (waste) that either could
not, would not be recovered or would create a range of environmental
problems if recovery of any form was attempted. The dominant paradigm
sought to burn, bury or dump the "wastes" after it is produced. This
paradigm prescribes no measures to prevent waste. The challenging
paradigm - called "Zero Waste" - sought to address the problem by
changing the materials and economies leading to the production of
"waste." Zero Waste goes beyond technical interventions. It has at its
core a set of social and ethical criteria that are required to be
considered even at the stage of designing a product.
1. Necessity: Is
the product necessary?
Impact: Can the product be made from material that minimize negative
Impact: Can the need for the product be fulfilled using locally available
resources and can the product be manufactured locally?
Can the product be designed to reduce the resources required?
Transportation: Can it be manufactured close to the point of use so as to
minimise transportation and packaging?
recovery: Can the product be reused, recycled or safely composted at the end of
An integral part
of the Zero Waste program in Kovalam has been to explore ways of boosting the
local economy by generating entrepreneurial livelihood activities that convert
local natural resources into environmentally-friendly replacements for items
currently made using unsustainable material like plastic. To implement this, the
program began with a two-pronged work plan.
Recovery (RR): Typically,
an RR facility consists of a 15 cubic metre biogas plant, an RR Room for
non-biodegradable discards, a compost pit and drying yard. Biodegradable wastes
that would otherwise stink up the landscape would now be converted to fuel-gas
by the biogas unit, while other discards would be segregated and sold as scrap.
RR facilities can be within individual institutions or serving clusters of
establishments. The Zero Waste initiative has succeeded in convincing hotel
clusters to set up 3 biogas units resulting in the diversion of more than 1 ton
of biodegradable discards out of the total garbage of 7 tons/day.
the useful life of eco-friendly discards (paper, coconut shell, cloth
waste) to displace products made using unsustainable material is the
aim of the Material Substitution programme. Currently, the Zero Waste
Centre is promoting products made of paper, jute, cloth and coconut
shell. This program runs closely with "Entrepreneurship Development and
Support" through which local people are trained to develop and manage
small enterprises. At least three entrepreneurial units run solely by
women have come up that make products out of coconut shell, paper and
tailoring wastes. With the consolidation of its work through the Zero
Waste Centre, the program added three new components to its portfolio.
3. Poison Free
Farming: Linked to the
concept of material substitution is the program to replace
agrochemical-intensive farming practices with chemical-free small-scale
agriculture. Under this program, local farmers- mostly women- are given
technical assistance and training on organic agricultural practices. Both
production and marketing support are provided in a bid to revive homestead
farming and supply the tourist industry and domestic markets. This initiative
has spawned at least 200 new organic farmers, some of whom supply local hotels
also with organic produce.
the water crisis in Kovalam is imperative to the long-term ecological security
of the region. The Water Conservation program aims to involve the local
communities in reclaiming their water resources.
5. Community Capacity
Building: The Community Capacity
Building program is a long-term effort that aims to equip people, particularly
children, with the skills required to build an environmentally sustainable and
socially just world. In all, the Zero Waste initiative has resulted in the
creation of nearly 160 jobs between 2002 and 2005 apart from the opportunity
gained by the organic farming initiative.
Zero Waste Kovalam and
The experiment in Kovalam was
well received by some of the local self governments, institutions and even by
many organizations and governments internationally. It was showcased and many
people came down for a visit. Apart from creating a model for solid waste
management, Zero Waste Kovalam influenced policies of different Governments
regarding waste management.
In Kerala, the Clean Kerala
Mission- an advisory board created under Department of Local Self Government-
came up with a policy document on waste management for the state in which the
ideas and experiences from Zero Waste Kovalam were included. In principle the
Government agreed for a vision of Zero Waste. It was after continuous
interactions and debate with the officials in the institution.
Total Sanitation and Health
Mission- a campaign division under Local Self Government Department working
with the support of Rural Department, Government of India- also came into the
picture of waste management in Kerala. They also picked the idea of zero waste
and gave emphasis on decentralized, at source discard handling and non
incineration methods of discard handling. Thanal was identified as member of
Technical Support Group and State level Faculty for training the officials and
elected representatives to formulate plans for discard handling.
Thanal also advocated for the
need and importance of integrating vocational training and farming programmes to
reduce waste. Concept papers were sent to many policy formulating institutions
including State Planning Board.
Kerala Tourism showcased Zero
Waste Kovalam as a brand for promoting tourism in Kovalam and they won several
national and international awards. Moreover the Kerala Tourism earmarked money
to support up scaling zero waste in six different tourism destinations in Kerala.
The money was transferred to Kudumbasree Mission- State level body coordinating
women self help group initiatives in entrepreneurship and micro credit- to
implement the projects in the destinations.
Many institutions and Local
Self Governments replicated some of the ideas of Zero Waste Kovalam to address
their issues on waste. Delegations from different Countries visited Zero Waste
Department of Tourism,
Government of Philippines influenced by the achievements of Zero Waste Kovalam,
decided to adopt Zero Waste Policy for addressing the waste issues in their
Still the campaign is
handicapped lacking some national level policies to address 100 percent waste.
For example, Extended Producer Responsibility which makes the producer
responsible for his post consumer products still lacking. Similarly policies on
progressive packaging laws to reduce the use of plastics and other toxic
material in packing are yet to come.
The threat of land filling is
still hanging above us where technical experts and consultants advised
Government of Kerala to go for massive regional landfills for the State.
To formulate a zero waste plan,
it needs integration and participation of different sectors of the Government
and society. Integration of schemes, departments, funds and activities are a
Herculean task. Facilitation supported with patience and sense of direction can
make it possible, still it is like walking on the edge of a sword.
Experience and lessons from
the Policy level interventions
Initially in the campaign for
Zero Waste, we had the support of the local community in Kovalam, primarily
because we were trying to address one of their worst problems- waste and also
we were addressing waste differently, saying that this can create employment by
way of material substitution. So, the approach was not to immediately get into
the job of handling the nearly 7 T of waste in Kovalam, but to empower the local
community, especially women and train them in producing materials- useful paper
bags, coconut shell, and other eco-friendly substitutes to plastics and other
non-degradable materials. This started the understanding of zero waste as a
resource management system rather than a waste management system. Slowly, when
we started the work, following the community work and support, the Tourism
department which responded earlier with the scrapping of the Incinerator
proposal, now put in their support, to help start a Zero Waste Centre and also
for building Biogas plants for bio-degradable waste of the tourism industry. We
also put forward the concept of Resource Recovery Facility, which is a
single-point waste segregation and redirection system.
From this concept, the next
stage in our campaign was to take the zero waste across other areas- both
within the State and in the region. There were demands globally also.
Gradually, zero waste was really taking root in Kovalam, especially when more
than 1 T of biodegradable waste was handled, and also more than 100 women
started being self employed. The local hotels and resorts, with whom we were
continuously engaging, soon shelved their reluctance to take responsibility of
their waste, and they joined to setup and help run the Bio-gas plants. A few of
the hotels also helped the women entrepreneurs by buying their products like
paper bags and coconut shell utensils. We soon found that many of the
politically elected representatives as well a few bureaucrats were seeing this
developmental focus in waste management as a threat, especially because they
actually loved waste!! Ironical, but as long as waste was there, there were
lots of problems and hence this became a bargaining point for the local
panchayats, whose yearly demand for money from the State Government kept
increasing. As soon as the allotment came for waste management, the panchayats
always did a shoddy job, scooping the waste heaps and simply burying them in the
beach or dumping them in highway sides, leaving a major portion of the cost
safely in their pockets. The suggestion to solve the waste problem in that area
through zero waste was obviously a threat to them. In the same way, as time
passed, working with the Tourism department was also becoming difficult. But
since there was good support from the senior officials, we continued to work
with them in the programme.
Gradually, the Tourism
department was benefiting from this approach. The Zero Waste Kovalam project
got them two awards- one National and another International. Though this was
projected as their achievement, the actual principles of zero waste was never
quite adopted by them, instead they always continued to demand that "waste must
be disposed off". Meanwhile, many organizations across the country and also
from other countries came to visit the project and see the work, and carried
with them the philosophy. In Kerala, the experience we got from the work was
of the issues in the technology and process of waste management (rather resource
management ), the issue of governance, and also the sociological aspects of
waste management. With this expertise, we moved to policy level interventions,
where we started working (or rather influencing ) the approaches of mainly three
agencies- the Clean Kerala Mission, a government sponsored mission with the aim
of making Kerala clean, the Kerala State Sanitation Mission and the Local Self
Governments. The Clean Kerala Mission declared themselves a policy of Zero
Waste on the ground (whatever that actually means!). Then again the Total
Sanitation Mission actually adopted our approaches and one of the members of our
Zero Waste team was their resource persons. In the same way, the eco-tourism
department also took Thanal as a resource group for their waste working groups.
This has now grown into a Responsible Tourism approach in destination
But all the while, the local
panchayats completely lost interest in us at Kovalam, and we were also finding
it impossible to work with them, but we were being invited across the State by
other panchayats, to design their zero waste systems. But invariably one lesson
we have seen through out this exercise is that the urge to solve a problem
unfortunately does not come as a collective need. Most of the time, whether it
be at the ministerial level down to the local community, it has always been some
enthused individual who believed that a community level decentralized solution
is needed, takes it on his/her shoulder and attempts to solve the problem. But
they always face the problem, when they get into the organized Panchayat system
and worse still the organized and degraded departmental system. But
nevertheless, with a lot of zeal many of these individuals with a little
management skills have been able to make breakthroughs in their efforts.
As far as our Zero waste work
is concerned, while it could make the life of many on the ground in Kovalam
really better, it could not make significant changes in the minds of many in the
upper ranks of the governance and society, but due to the efforts of a few in
the planning and decision making levels, it could make changes in the policy.
Now Kerala, unlike many states
does not consider Incinerator as a solution, and the thrust is for segregation
and composting, But we have not yet been able to actually start a
decentralized approach to waste management even after all our centralized plants
have miserably failed and become environmental disasters.
Shibu K. Nair
Michael Jessen, 'The ripple
effect of Zero Waste'
Dr. Paul Connett, 'Zero Waste'
Dr. K.N. Nair, Sridhar R, 'Cleaning up Kerala- Studies in self-help with solid waste'
Websites: Clean Production
Action, Environment Canada, INFORM, UNEP, New South Wales consolidated Acts,