Eco-Wise: Braving New Frontiers in Waste Management

By Prerna Srivastava|29th Apr 2008
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Waste management is a significant challenge for India, specifically in urban areas, where the accumulation of trash leads to the prevalence of preventable diseases in poor, underprivileged populations. In order to address this issue, change is required on both a systemic and individual level, as the cause of the problem is rooted not only in lack of sanitation infrastructure / policies, but culturally accepted behavioral norms as well. In other words, not only do individuals not believe in maintaining the integrity of public spaces, but there is no formalized system in place to ensure that waste is collected and disposed of properly. Unfortunately, if there is no sense of personal responsibility, as well as no concept of proper trash disposal (neither the infrastructure to support this notion), how can we even begin to take the next necessary steps towards recycling and reuse?

As part of its “Climate Connections” series, NPR recently featured India’s first waste-recycling company, EcoWise Waste Management, the “leading provider of waste and environmental services” outside the Delhi area. To date, the company has achieved the following:

Headquartered in Noida, the company’s network of operations includes 15 collection operations, 2 transfer stations, 2 waste-to-compost plants and 5 recycling plants. These assets enable Eco Wise to offer a full range of environmental services to nearly 1.5 lac residential, industrial, municipal and commercial customers. We collect and treat 40 tons of waste on a daily basis, which would otherwise be found lying on the roadside or make its way to the landfill site.
  1. Our activities diverted more than 2,400,000 tons of waste from ending up in land fill sites just last year
  2. With 80 manual rikshaws and 8 trucks running on bio-diesel we operate the cities largest fleet of clean vehicles
  3. Eco Wise is the only company in India that has its own waste segregation and treatment site.
  4. Our operations have permanently shut down more than 15 road side dumps in Noida.

The question, then, is this – if private actors are able to do (efficiently, cost-effectively, scalably) what government entities are supposed to do, how can the government capitalize on the insight of these entities? We’ve talked about PPPs on this site before, but what potential is there for these types of partnerships in the sanitation sector? (More after the break)

Also, this approach addresses only a tiny percentage of the concern regarding lack of infrastructure/enforceability mechanisms in the context of proper trash disposal/collection. Precisely what will it take to make these kinds of initiatives scalable? Certainly, a private entity cannot provide the sanitation infrastructure for an entire country, but how can different sets of actors work to prop up the role of public entities?

Finally, this initiative does not seem to address the most fundamental component of this issue – cultural and behavioral norms. Infrastructure building does not mean anything if it is not accompanied by a simultaneous shift in mentality. Fundamentally, this is a very human problem. As long as people continue to see littering as a socially acceptable norm, no amount of intervention on part of private or public actors is likely to do any good. Catalyzing behavioral change in individuals and communities is also the hardest, as it must take place over the long-term, and requires a significant investment of time, resources, and energy. It requires viewing the issue from the complex lens of human behavior.

How can we do all this at once? One possible route is to capitalize on the strengths of pre-existing institutions and organizations. For example, NGOs tend to do better with the human dimension of a problem, with one-on-one community interaction, capacity building, grassroots-level empowerment, and ultimately, behavioral change. Private actors have the capacity to build infrastructure, to incentivize cost-effective processes, and mobilize sources of funding/capital. Government entities have the capacity (potentially) to implement large-scale, long-term initiatives for the public good, and have (ideally) the resources, the influence, and most fundamentally, the mandate to effect large scale change.

If these actors sit together on one table, along with individuals (such as social entrepreneurs), there is potential for change. Of course, this may be idealistic on my part. What do you think?

To read a related post by Shital, or to get more background on the issue of PPPs in the context of waste management, go here.

[Article source submitted courtesy of Sonal Singhal, Indicorps Fellows 2006-2007]