Nestled amongst the palm trees of Kerala, India, with a stunning stretch of sea on one side and meandering ghats on the other, sits the considerable complex of Amritapuri, home to one of India’s few female gurus. There are 3,500 people living here permanently and several thousand more visitors at any one time in search of spiritual enlightenment from Amma (which translates as ‘Mother’), who is renowned for bestowing a blessing in the form of a hug to all who meet her. Taking a hiatus from a career in environmental consultancy in the UK, I am currently one such visitor.
While many of the spiritual seekers will not consider what happens to their waste during their stay, there is one permanent resident who thinks about little else. Mahita, originally from the USA, has been at the ashram for 11 years and in that time has installed numerous waste points composed of clearly labelled bins for different types of waste. With Amma’s support and guidance, she has also built an impressive materials recovery facility (MRF) to sort all the waste collected. As she has been dealing with waste on the frontline for so long, I asked her about waste management at the ashram and about her perspective on the wider issue of waste in India.
Residents at the ashram are requested to partake in non-mandatory work activities for a few hours a day to help keep everything running smoothly. I asked to spend a day volunteering in the MRF to see how it operated. Despite the well-labelled bins there is still a lot of contamination between waste streams, which all get sorted by hand. There are work aprons and latex gloves provided, and while these are welcome, your hands quickly feel unpleasantly clammy with sweat in the 30 degree heat. Hand sorting materials would be tough job in any circumstances, but remembering that everyone here is a volunteer (including Mahita) makes the dedication of those involved all the more impressive.
Working in the MRF is generally the preserve of only the most dedicated, as there are plenty of less gruelling tasks available at the ashram, such as chopping vegetables, folding laundry or gardening. Mahita confirmed she has put a lot of effort into retaining experienced volunteers: from colourful murals adorning the MRF’s walls to well-designed process with all the associated equipment, the best possible working environment is provided for the consistent team who keep things running.
The ashram provides its residents with free Indian meals three times a day in addition to modestly priced western food, so it’s not surprising that of the four tonnes of waste processed daily by the MRF half of it is, on average, organic. This organic waste is composted locally, with the compost then used on the 1,000 acres of farmland owned by the organisation. The food grown there is subsequently used to feed those who are most in need. This is a benefit of the size of the Amma’s organisation, and it’s great to see the organic waste treated in a closed-loop system that is so self-sufficient and genuinely circular in its recycling.
Meanwhile, the non-organic waste is mostly sold to external recyclers, making the MRF financially profitable for the ashram and an overall contributor to the charitable work of the organisation. The easy things to sell are metals, card, PET and other hard plastics, all of which have roughly equal value. This surprised me at first, since in the UK metals in particular would normally be considered much more valuable. Further investigation, however, revealed that India has a well-established industry for recycling PET plastics, with between 60–70% recycled and the PET recycling market worth over £380 million. This is much higher than the 48% of Europe or the 31% of the USA, and would seem to explain why the prices for hard plastics are competitive.
While this is a positive story, an abundance of harder to recycle materials such as soft plastics (e.g. crisp packets and sweet wrappers), pens, toothbrushes and tetra-packs does present a problem, and the ashram MRF struggles to find anyone to take these waste streams. Generally in India, there is also a serious lack of metals recycling capacity. While it is positive to see hard plastics being recycled in large quantities, metals lag behind with a recycling rate of just 20–25%. The urgent need for improvements in this neglected market presents not just a challenge but also a golden opportunity, with both potential environmental and economic benefits.
States of awareness
As India continues to develop economically, the amount of waste it produces only increases and there is still much to be done to ensure proper collection, sorting and disposal countrywide. Ultimately, India will only solve its waste problems with a combination of extensive waste management services and changing public attitudes. There have been national efforts to change attitudes, such as the ‘Swachh Bharat’, which translates as ‘Clean India Mission’, for which the ashram input into the campaign strategy. This launched in 2014, but so far while there has been progress reducing public defecation thanks to provision of toilets, there is still a lot to be done when it comes to reducing littering on the national scale.
Mahita recognises the need for better government policy, and she’d like to see fines for littering and the introduction of a deposit refund scheme (DRS), in which a small charge is attached to packaging at the point of purchase and refunded when returned to the vendor. She’s confident that a DRS scheme would work well in India, and could provide significant additional income to India’s 1.5 million rag-pickers. Whether or not this would in turn undermine the scheme’s overall aim of preventing people from littering in the first place is unclear, but any such scheme would need take this into consideration.
Currently, legislation on plastic usually comes from the state rather than federal level of government. At the start of 2019, Tamil Nadu became the 4th Indian state to implement a plastic ban, covering 14 different items including plastic bags, straws and films. It seems likely that Kerala will introduce its own ban soon, but if Prime Minister Modi wants to make good on his intention to end single-use plastic in India by 2022, federal intervention may well be what’s needed. Previous attempts to legislate plastic bans have not always guaranteed effective implementation, and some bans have been vigorously opposed by industry. Only time will tell if Tamil Nadu can do a better job at enforcement, but with different states banning different items the issue is ripe for confusion.
For the time being, back at Amritapuri waste management is still more advanced than it is in much of the rest of the country. Even on a local scale, the ashram recognises that it cannot fix all waste problems. Previously, an attempt was made to engage local villages, and to treat locally produced waste at the ashram MRF, since for people to dispose of their waste responsibly there has to be somewhere for it to go. However, the sheer scale of waste overwhelmed the MRF, which was already busy sorting everything from the ashram. The approach now taken is for the ashram MRF to serve as a learning centre, and anyone in India is welcome to come and see how it operates. There are numerous ashrams across India, as well as other community groups, that could gain by learning from the Amritapuri model.
Mahita believes that India can be a leader in waste management; the potential is there, it just needs harnessing. She says there has been definite progress made in the 10 years she’s been working in the country, both in terms of better infrastructure and changing attitudes. Although there is still a pressing need for more education to convince people of the need for change and there is continuing complacency around littering, things are getting better.
I hope she’s right. Across Kerala I’ve seen signs prohibiting litter, particularly mentioning plastic, and compared with when I was in North India 10 years ago the litter has generally been better than I was expecting, so I can see change happening. I was also delighted to discover that filtered water is available at the ashram – negating the need for a daily purchase of a new plastic bottle of water in the Indian heat – and I’ve also found filtered or boiled water to be commonplace in homestays and guest houses. Kerala is known as one of India’s most progressive states, so hopefully it can be a leader for change on waste management for the rest of the country.
Featured image © Katharine Blacklaws. Used by permission.