Our Green Trails head, Lakshmi Selvakumaran, gave a TedX talk at the reputed NITK Suratkal campus on January 18th, 2019. While we await the official video, here is the full script.
Last year I was on the Chandrashila summit. You must go there if you can. It is not a difficult trek, but the sight that you see from the summit can knock you off your feet. When the first rays of the sun touch the Chaukhamba massif, this is what you see:
This trek starts from Sari, a small village in the remote part of Himalayas with not more than 150 houses.
In one corner of this village is a small gully in the mountain side, filled with trash. Most of it tourism waste. This village has many such dump spots. But this is not unique to Sari. Most trekking villages in our Himalayas face the same problem.
Take a look at this beautiful meadow. Just behind the mule, in the opening between the mountain is a similar waste dump. All our treks share the same fate.
Now, I want you to try imagine this wilderness: These places are very inaccessible. There aren’t any corporation, municipality, any bodies to take care of the place. Dustbins, waste collecting vans – things we are used to in the cities are hard to imagine here. The nearest landfills are almost 250 kms away.
How can you solve the problem of waste in such a place?
This is what my team has been working on for the past 6 years. I head the Green Trails team. The Green Trails Project is an independent division of Indiahikes, one of India’s largest trekking organisation.
The problem we are working on is this. To find a way to clean up the mountains and reduce the inflow of litter.
Our idea to solve the problem was simple. Educate trekkers and villagers around trekking zones, provide a proper waste collection system, transport the waste to landfills and find a way to maintain it over time. To me, it was a matter of providing the right infrastructure and building the right system.
It turned out to be a very difficult and costly task – an unsustainable one at that. We were putting in expensive means and resources to bring down waste.
While doing this we realized something. Landfill was where our collected waste was going to — a place where waste is forgotten and left for eternity.
It got us thinking. To us, it seemed that we were simply transferring the waste. With it our responsibility for it to the landfill. Nothing else. Also, it is not that the waste stopped growing.
We realized that:
Building infrastructure and putting systems is only good to manage waste. To truly solve the waste crisis we need to do two things. One, increase the waste collected by a big margin – we needed to match the rate at which littering was increasing. Two, we also had to reduce the waste altogether — either from getting generated or from reaching the landfill.
This required more than an infrastructure solution. It required us to look at the problem in a completely different way. We had to get everyone to change their behaviour.
By behavioral change, I mean looking into our habits and perceptions that we have about waste. Waste was not going to get collected by simply asking people to be mindful.
How many of us have tried to make a big behavioral change in our lives? Just think about the last time we got out of bed to go for an early morning run.
I have tried to make several behavioral changes in my life. Each of those tasks have been herculean.
If making a behavioral change in myself was such a difficult task, imagine bringing in total strangers with different outlooks to do the same. It almost seemed impossible.
But we knew that getting people to think and inculcate a new behaviour was the right way to do it. Because when done right, it was much more effective and sustainable.
Today, I want to share three such stories of behavioral changes that we have worked on
The first problem we needed to solve was to increase the amount of waste we are able to bring down.
Every year more than 5,000 people flock to just one of these treks.
As a general rule, going on a trek meant following leave no trace – meaning, you do not leave anything other than your footprints behind. But that is not the general practice. It is ingrained in most of us to throw the waste in hand. Even the most conscious trekker struggled with this. When you are climbing a steep mountain, focused on your next breath, this is the last thing in your mind.
Inevitably, a lot of waste is generated. To clean the mountains, we needed to stop people from littering and clean the existing litter. How do we do this?
Eco bag. This is an eco bag. Every trekker of ours wears this. In fact one easy way to recognise an Indiahikes trekker is to look out for an Eco-bag.
The instruction to our trekkers was very simple. Tie the eco bags on your waist, pick up litter on the trail/camp. Give the litter to us at the camp when you reach.
With eco bags in place, we started to notice these behavioral changes:
- The mere fact that an eco bag was tied to their waist made trekkers stop littering. With a little nudge, they even started to pick up other’s waste. No special instruction was required.
- Until then trekkers always saw the problem as someone else’s to solve. More conscious people could not see how to solve the problem. The very presence of eco bags empowered them to think of themselves as part of the solution.
- The problem became approachable. With an entire trekking community participating, an inherent shyness to participate in such activities reduced.
- The impact went much beyond than this. As more and more people saw us collecting waste, people hesitated to litter. The amount of littering reduced in proportion to the amount of people going on the trek.
- More and more people from the local community started becoming conscious. They started to produce lesser litter themselves.
- Many trekkers took this practice and started active clean-up on treks around their homes.
- Over time this became the standard for most trek organizations. Now, other trek organizations have their own eco bags.
Slowly eco bags became a symbol of how treks run.
From a culture of indifference, we have brought in a culture of proactiveness. In a span of three years we were able to bring down 50,000 kgs of waste from the mountains!
Let me also say this. Eco bag has not solved the problem completely. We still have people who question why they need to pick up other’s waste. We still have lots of waste to pick up.
But we are heading in the right direction.
This brings me to the second issue we had in hand. We needed to reduce the waste going to the landfill.
When I started working at Indiahikes, I noticed that we were not segregating our waste at source. So whatever we collected was going directly to the landfills.
Segregating waste reduces the amount of waste going to landfill by 60-70%. This was incredible. Which meant that of this 50,000 kg we could prevent 30,000 kg and even more of waste going to landfills.
We knew that segregating waste is an important step. But it is a difficult task. Have you tried segregating waste at home? Most of us don’t.
How can you get trekkers to segregate on a trek? Mind you, we are asking them to segregate in some of the hardest terrain and worst weather after a hard day’s trek. But we knew it was the right way to trek. The intent to segregate is not a natural habit for any of us. Building that habit is a huge challenge. We tried several ways to do that. Most of them failed.
For example, at every campsite we prominently kept three clearly labeled sacks. In our trek leader briefings, everyone was asked to segregate the waste at each campsite. Yet, we noticed that the sacks still came down with mixed waste.
We realized that even after explaining trekkers did not know which waste went where. A lot of them did not bother.
This was a problem. We introduced new posters, illustrations, had more detailed briefings — but none of them were effective.
Then one day, in one of our experiments, we threw a plastic sheet on the ground and asked trekkers to join us segregate.
We noticed an immediate behaviour change. Trekkers were happily segregating waste. Not only were they doing it quickly, they were more accurate. What was happening?
- Trekkers needed nudges. They understand that segregation was important. But after a hard day’s trek, it was just easy to skip. The nudge helped.
- When they saw everyone participating, it brought about a sense of collective responsibility. Even people who were bystanders, participated. Peer pressure started to work.
- When it was done together as a community activity, the accuracy improved. People helped each other. Mistakes were less.
During this exercise, we also saw changes in their outlook.
- Our trek leaders heard trekkers saying how easy it was to throw waste and how difficult it was to fill a sack of garbage.
- A lot of them understood the importance of segregating at source. The act of segregating waste once it is mixed, made them realize how tedious it was.
- For a lot of them, it was a moment of humility. They started appreciating people who worked in waste management at the grassroot levels.
In short, the short act of segregating waste, got them to think. And doing it everyday on the trek helped build this habit on the treks.
Today even as I talk to you, the amount of waste that we send to the landfills have reduced dramatically. The rest is upcycled, recycled or composted.
Which brings me to my third story.
Our waste collection was going up, we were diverting almost 60% of waste from landfills. What do we do with the 40% waste?
The problem with the 40% is that they are mainly non-recyclable waste – chocolate wrappers, biscuit wrappers, shampoo sachets – these are the waste that get thrown out very easily. Once I stopped and asked a small kid why he was throwing down a chips packet, he told me, what else to do with it?
So, that is what we worked on – what can we do with these waste? In villages, much of the generated waste is non-recyclable waste. To stop them from littering or burning the waste, we needed to show them the value the waste holds. We realized that upcycling was a way to do that. We thought that if they are able to sell the products out of this waste, they would see it differently.
We started with the women. If we could change their minds, then the men and children would follow.
To do this, first, we had to identify the products to upcycle. There were two constraints:
- The products had to be easy to make.
- The products needed to have utility.
After lot of thought, we identified cushions, bottle bricks and coasters for our products. All of these products were easy to make, no skill required and could be used anywhere.
Initially, it was difficult to get the women to segregate the plastic wrappers or get them to clean it. But when they saw revenue out of the sales, they started to understand its value.
Women who used to burn or throw the waste, started collecting them. They would keep it safe until our product making workshops. We saw them even picking up waste from the streets. Cleaning them became easy. The value of waste changed. Waste became opportunities.
Soon our efforts reached over 12 villages and over 100 women. We made hundreds of these cushions to trekkers. Trekkers were buying them happily. The village women wanted to up their production!
On the other hand the bottle bricks were another big hit. We started using the bottle bricks to make benches, shelves, and a lot of utility products for the use of villages themselves.
All of this resulted in lesser waste going to landfills. I saw the same kid making bottle bricks with the wrapper instead of throwing it down. The streets of these villages were getting visibly cleaner.
A recent testament to our efforts was when the Block Development Officer of a remote village Bijenbari near Darjeeling got the entire villagers to make more than 4,000 bottle bricks to build a wall around his facility. He promised to build more infrastructure with the bottle bricks in the future. This is a wonderful example of a community was taking charge of their waste.
The waste we upcycle is otherwise non-recyclable. Three years ago, I have heard communities tell me that they needed dustbins, a person to collect their waste and someone to take down the waste. Now, the very same people see other ways of handling waste — that cost almost nothing but can handle almost everything.
Earlier, when I researched for long term solutions — incinerators, pyrolysis machines and recycling plants seemed to be the solution. These long term solutions seemed impossible to implement in these remote areas. It seemed like a dead end.
Now, we are able to solve this without the need for any of them. All of these came about with a change in perception.
The three stories I shared, show how behavioral change helped us clean the mountains better.
Now, my team is working on reducing the waste altogether at source from getting generated.
Through these exercises, I learnt this: Behavioral change happens when we make it easy for people to take responsibility, provide constant nudges and get them to assign value.
What I shared here, is in fact universal and applies to most of our social problems. That makes it a powerful tool that we cannot ignore.
It takes tremendous effort to simply convince someone to change their mind about something. So, bringing about a behavioral change can seem like a mountainous task.
But I believe it is the right solution to the problem of waste. It is the final solution. The final solution does not lie in external agencies. It does not lie with the government. Not infrastructure.
It lies in behavioral change.
We need to change behavior of people and the best place to start is ourselves.