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Trash tales: how a family trip inspired me to tackle a global crisis

Written by Nidhi Bhaskar, founder of ProjectNBYouth

I walked out of the towering clinic in the small rural town of Hassan, India and almost collided into a small crowd of children sprinting in the opposite direction. Deeply engaged in their game of tag, they scarcely noticed me as I leapt back to avoid being trampled. As I waited for my ride home, I watched the children climb on what looked like a small hill… of trash.

This is ironic, I thought; surely, the hospital management should know better than to leave that around. The subliminal alarm bells in my mind started flashing “health hazard” and I walked over to the trash heap. “Come down,” I cried. “Seriously, it’s not safe!” The kids watched me, with my “foreign” clothes and American accent, and looked at each other, passing tacit judgement through not-so-subtle glances and chuckles. Realizing my mistake, I switched to speaking Kannada, the region’s native language, but the damage had been done- they knew I wasn’t from the area.

As I gestured firmly at the trash and tried again to convince them to get down, a young boy in a faded blue shirt turned to the little girl next to him and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. They all broke into peals of laughter. Between their giggles, I deciphered two words: trash girl. I walked away, mortified at being scorned by this group of children half my age.

My experience in Hassan was not my first exposure to the global waste management crisis, but it caused me to realize how different life could be from the spotless suburb of Chesterfield, Missouri where I lived. I was always cognizant that I was lucky to live in a community where trash is managed efficiently and we are encouraged to recycle to maintain a clean and sustainable environment. I also knew that there were other areas of the world that were not as fortunate, but somehow seeing it firsthand had changed my perspective of the problem.

The next day, I accompanied my aunt to a shopping district in the heart of Bangalore city. As soon as we arrived, I realized that the trash crisis was very real and worse than I could have imagined. Stepping out of the car, I noticed a large cesspool to my right which the shoppers skillfully had learned to avoid… hello malaria!

Everywhere I looked, I saw small mounds of broken glass, soda cans, plastic bags, and solid waste. Indeed, the well maintained shops we visited only served to juxtapose the putrid sidewalks, and every time, we exited a building, my nostrils filled with the sulfuric stench of decaying food.  I had spent so much of my two previous visits tagging along with my cousins as they let me “explore” the more upscale parts of the city where they and their friends lived, that I had built up an idealized image of the city in my mind. Now, this image had been shattered and I felt almost betrayed. The memories and observations of trash during my travels quickly flooded back.

During a previous trip to Egypt, I had been scandalized to notice a man throwing his half-finished sandwich onto a busy street. “That’s littering!” I had exclaimed, nose pressed against the scratched glass window of our tour bus. “He should know better. What if that had landed on someone? Can’t he get in trouble for that?” Much to my chagrin, Niven, our local tour guide had laughed and shook her head, explaining that the law enforcement had much more serious issues to deal with than one littering individual. Even the other tourists in our tour group had chuckled at my indignation, indicating that they too had accepted the drastic change in ideals from the modus operandi in the United States.

After spending some time researching the trash crisis, I learned that a portion of the problem lay with the trash-collection system, but a greater component could be attributed to the mindset of the population. In Bangalore, most individuals place the blame on 24,000 garbage collectors in a city of 4.3 million for the nearly 400,000 tonnes of trash released into the street, every year. With this understaffing, the garbage workers often visit houses in certain areas inconsistently, prompting the residents to throw their trash into the streets. However, it was even more unsettling to realize that the city itself produces 5,000 tonnes of waste per day with each individual contributing half a kilogram of waste. There was also a surprisingly small number of households that properly segregated their waste – only 40 percent of neighborhoods even had separate bins for wet and dry trash.

Recycling is also not a universal practice. There are 154 recycling centers set up by the government in which recyclables often have to be separated from the trash by hand that always overflow during major holidays and celebrations. Due to this, crowding in the streets and automobile accidents have become more common. With the lack of awareness about this problem and sustainable practices among the public, it became clear to me that people of India’s “Garden City” were forced into a self-perpetuating routine of complacency regarding the waste-management crisis. And I soon realized that other densely populated cities of India, such as Mumbai and Delhi also shared many of the same troubles with regard to sustainability.

ProjectNBYouth 2015 action project.

I realized that I wanted to share my knowledge about the waste crisis and find a way to raise awareness and inspire action among individuals in the area. I brainstormed with my parents and mentors over several months, and finally chose to create a competition and awards program to inspire young adults locally to take initiative in ameliorating Bangalore’s trash crisis.

I began planning the competition in 2015 and finalized it over the summer. I chose to encourage students to research and develop solutions for waste management issues in their community by designing the competition to have both action project and written essay components. I reached out to faculty at my school and local universities and gained the support of three mentors who also shared my interests. I applied for several grants, and after receiving my first $500 from the Keds Foundation, my parents helped me convert my idea into its own nonprofit organization – Project New Boundaries for Youth (ProjectNBYouth).

During late July and August, I learned to navigate the depths of WordPress to set up, drafted and sent persuasive emails to teachers and administrators of every school in Bangalore to encourage students to participate in the competition, and called those school administrators directly whose emails bounced back.

Sometimes, no amount of persuading could convince administrators to take a chance on the competition. Indeed, several of my conversations with the directors of large international schools often ended with a terse “We aren’t interested” and a disconnected call. But other institutions were more accepting and open to this new opportunity: the principals of the KMV Red Hills Academy and the Army Public School both called me and commended me for promoting action against the waste management crisis at hand, while assuring me that they would get the word out to their students and their colleagues at neighboring schools.

At the end of that first year’s competition, I received a total of 20 essays and action projects by about ninety students from various schools. The initiative that these individuals had taken was indeed one of the most rewarding experiences of my life, and after I finished the first year, I fully expected that my project had left a tangible impact in reducing Bangalore’s waste crisis.

When my father visited Bangalore the following year, I was disappointed to hear that there was not much difference in the amount of trash on the streets in Bangalore. I have since come to realize that the when we work towards a monumental global crisis such as waste management and sustainability, tangible effects could rarely be apparent immediately. Progress in this field is… well, a work in progress in itself. Change seldom occurs in quick spurts, but rather in small steps driven by perseverance and conviction.

Works Cited

“Garbage Bomb Waiting to Explode in City.” Bangalore Times, Coleman & Co, bangalore/civic/Garbage-bomb-waiting-to-explode-in-city/articleshow/51770499.cms.

“Will Bangalore Ever Be Garbage Free?” The Hindu, homes-and-gardens/green-living/will-bangalore-ever-be-garbagefree/article6040441.ece.