Turning useless wastes to useful wastes

In Beverly Hills… they don’t throw their garbage away. They make it into television shows.” —Woody Allen.

Indian wastes are ‘useless wastes’. Our consumption habits may have leapfrogged, but our disposal habits are primitive. We mix up useful wastes with useless wastes, destroying the value in the former—you can’t compost paper and vegetable remains mixed with broken glass and plastic pet bottles, nor can you recycle paper mixed with food wastes and electronic remains.
If India has to successfully deal with its wastes, two paradigmatic changes are required in our thinking.
Unfortunately, it is the rag-pickers and the municipal authorities who are made to grapple with the messy problem, without either adequate incentives or resources. The problem has to be back-loaded on consumer product companies who created the non-destructive, non-biodegradable or unconsumed packaging or products and also benefited from it; and instead of trying to segregate mixed wastes, we should prevent it from getting mixed in the first place by appropriate incentives or punishments for compliant or errant behaviour, respectively, at the stage of the mix-up.
If this principle is accepted, (1) all packaging material should also go back to the packager—just like the truck goes back to the truck owner after the delivery of cargo—and they should be made to pay for the costs of such ‘back trace’, (2) what comes into the city and urban centres should go back from where it came, and (3) electronic hardware (which are potential future debris) and packaged food (which comes with non-biodegradable packaging) should be handled at the time of the original sale itself. Outlined below is a system of incentivising segregation at source and the benefits therefrom.

The suggested scheme
1. Every consumer and industrial manufacturer/marketer should be mandated to file their recycling plan or reclamation plan annually, or on a one-time basis. This can be enforced through fines or suspension of licence, till complied with.

2. They should be made to declare on the packaging (where it is multi-layered, on each of them) what value the marketers are prepared to give back to the consumer if he/she hands over the empty containers, cartons, plastics, corrugators, etc, to the point of sale. For example, water bottles may say: “Collect 40 paise against this bottle”. This would help create a ‘waste currency’.

3. Marketing companies should be mandated to collect at least 50% initially, and by the third year if at least 90% are not collected, their manufacturing licence should stand suspended (a similar procedure of disposal to source supplier exists in the Atomic Energy Regulatory Board regulations). The actual collection must be audited by independent entities.

4. To ensure compliance that marketers make efforts to collect back, few things can be done:
–   An upfront deposit with the government can be collected, say, at 3-4% (to be varied based on the biodegradability of leftovers) at the time of manufacture or entry into state or import into India, which can be refunded back based on the percentage collection.
–   Fines on the shortfall at twice the rate will enforce recollection of wastes.
–   Over a period of time, proper price discovery will happen if the enforcement is tight. If competing consumer marketing companies start offering different rates for recollection, it will be a signal to tighten enforcement on manufacturers who offer poorer rates.

5. Marketers may not deal with the wastes themselves. They will locate third-parties to reclaim, recycle, sell to re-users, or incinerators, energy companies, etc. Positive values will be reclaimed by recycling. Reusable material will be sold at commercial values. The rest may be sold to energy or incinerating companies.

6. The end-consumer may not find it worthwhile to go to a shop and exchange the waste currency. Rag-pickers may pick up wastes at the doorstep, and claim the waste currency at a discount and hand it over at sales counters. This will incentivise source-segregation. Rag-pickers should be trained to pick up all wastes and exchange the value of wastes, and dispose of the rest in designated ways.

7. Special shops will emerge that only concentrate on the collection of all wastes for a margin in every shopping mall, street corners, etc.

8. Heavy fines should be levied on selling companies for litters found in the open, which will induce some policing by them directly.
In addition, litter disposal should be made part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.
Forward distribution is highly working capital intensive, requires expensive shelf space, advertising and product promotion, besides hefty retail margins. Wastes being reclaimed do not suffer from any of these. In fact, the total cost (net of recoveries, if any) involved may not be more than 1-2% of the selling price of base material, excluding the manpower involved.

Estimates of employment and benefits
The Indian retail market for FMCG and pharmaceuticals was estimated at $630 billion in 2015. In FMCG, packaging costs typically account for 3-4% of sales value—the costs incurred on packaging on sales of $630 billion (`42 lakh crore) is likely to be about `1.4 lakh crore.
If the fines for non-collection are kept at, say, 4% of the sales value, hopefully companies could be expected to spend at least 2% on recollection (including on wages, transportation, storage and dealing with wastes), i.e. Rs 84,000 crore.
If roughly one-third of this accrues to labour as wages, it is about Rs 28,000 crore. At minimum wage rates of around `300 on 240 working days, it comes out to be 35 lakh man-years, i.e. 0.3% of our population. This is not wayward compared to the reported 0.7% currently employed in South Africa in similar activities, compared to 0.1% in India currently.

Going forward, probably the government’s role would be minimal. It should create the enabling legislation and set-up a ‘waste police’ whose job will be to catch and fine sellers who are not marking waste currency value, people littering, recyclers not completing their jobs, supervisory audit of audits, ensuring manufacturers file their plans, certifying refunds, etc. This ‘waste police’ should be additional trained staff, and not as an adjunct to the existing police duties.
The government can use a portion of ‘funds in custody’ (through upfront deposits) or fines for training and certifying the people involved. It can train people as part of skill development programmes or get originating companies to train them (for automobiles, e-wastes, hazardous chemicals, etc).
Even if compliance starts with multinational corporations and organised sector companies, it could quickly reach 40-50%. It will have a demo effect and lead to others falling in line.

Wealth of Guilt

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(only a part of my ‘wealth’)

My Wife had been nagging me for the most of last year to clear old and excess stuff and unusable items in my study, bath, wardrobe, and show case. As usual it faced stiff resistance till one day she cleared out partially and brought out many stuff out in the open in the drawing room. I could not resist any longer and plunged into clearing the weekend before year turn. This is what i found by way of ‘excess’ – quite apart from what i kept for possible future use or current immediate revival.

  • 1 home theatre and 2 music systems and a CD/DVD player, (I have 2 more systems for use)
  • 6 speaker sets, may be a dozen ear phones (apart from the half a dozen retained),
  • 23 leads 2 way pins old style which engage making a click sound,
  • 10 charging chords, (I have kept 18 chords of various kinds for future use),
  • 14   2-pin or 3-pin plugs,
  • More than 32 combs,
  • 17 mouth wash bottles,
  • 2 dozen tooth brushes,
  • 5 calculators,
  • Lucky I disposed off 4 shoes i am left with only 10 pairs now besides 5 sandals /chapels,
  • An embarrassing number of pens of various description (at least half a dozen of which are of high end variety like Waterman, Schauffer, one gold cross pen (gifted to me in 1993 and today’s indexed value must be more than Rs 60,000 but never used),

Batteries, watches, cell phones, batteries for cells, dozen toilet kits, scissors, staplers, punches, marker pens, fevisticks,… too embarrassing to tell.

I am sure many of you may not be far behind if you care to count and admit. I am sure that wealth – things bought with enough ‘economic’ logic’ in ‘emergent’ circumstances – afflict corporations, government departments, perhaps even ERPed organisations. (that is if they don’t have 2 versions of ERP running one for back up).

If I am not able to control this accumulation of ‘wealth’ (sure all these have entered into the National income and GDP of some country) why blame the likes of Imalda Marcos for her 4500 pairs of footwear and 15,000 saris of Tamil Nadu CM … perhaps they may have exercised their choice and bought for pleasure and it may have been far more affordable to them than the above things were to me.

Don’t read me wrong – I am not a kleptomaniac. My mother has given me strong sense of values not to pick even an unclaimed 10 paise coin. They say that we start questioning the logic of everything by age 13-18 and start questioning our values by 40 (so perhaps the saying ‘Don’t get naughty when you turn forty’). In my case this particular sense of righteousness seems to have survived the battle with values. So not for me inflating tour expense accounts, spending differently if it is from company’s account than it is from own account, seeking bribes on duty, etc. Values settle many day to day decisions for me instantly … no ruminations, no vacillations and hence no agonising over them. In that sense it has been a source of great help and happiness…regrets, I believe, come in only from foregone alternatives. A strong sense of values sort of effectively shuts out many of them and hence a lot less of the feeling of ‘foregoing alternatives’ and hence much less unhappiness.

Nor am I a shopaholic… just shopping for pleasure… compulsively!

Or profligate spender with loose controls. Again my mother would have accounted for every grain in her kitchen/house (some exaggeration here… but those were her times). Regret she didn’t train me in the same mould. Or perhaps she did. And I get overwhelmed by the scale and variety of new gizmos, articles, choices, things we are flooded with (deluge, should i call). The best of training has limits, I guess.

Regret my school didn’t train me in being responsible in housekeeping – putting things in their place for easy retrieval later, not buying anything more than strictly necessary. But then again any upbringing also has limits. They could train me to take care of 2 pens – one as reserve, but could they have imagined that one day i will be faced with a deluge of 200 pens/pencils in my house? In their days that’s what shopkeepers would have had.

I think this accumulation of ‘wealth’ may have happened in 2 ways.

These days most electronic gadgets come with their own set of connecting wires, plugs, chords to interface with TVs and Laptops without ask (and most of them look alike) instead of leaving it to be purchased independently. The Government should tax these add-ons heavily so that neither the seller or buyer supplies them as an automatic annexure.

The next perhaps bigger reason is lethargy which in a sense (at least in this) seems a sort of arrogance of affordability. Lethargy in keeping things in their designated place … or designating a place for each and taking cursory care to keep them in that place and lethargy in searching when required. When things don’t materialise as wished when required I get frustrated and go to the nearby shop to meet the ‘emergency’ or when we visit the mall next if it is something that can wait out my frustration. When I buy, an exaggerated sense of importance of my time overcomes me and ‘economic order quantity’ (why spend so much time shopping for such a small thing… hence take more than two or perhaps a dozen) is bought to be kept wherever till I hit the same patch of lethargy and frustration and the cycle repeats.

I wonder how much of our GDP and national wealth are of this kind.

How effective or desirable is ‘market economics’ when it allocated ‘resources’ for such ‘inessential’ uses when there can be so many out there more needy (or the future generations) for whom the use value would be far more even if they don’t have the ability to pay.

I don’t mean they should be given a dole at my expense. I hate doles and charity… except some basics. There is no better way to kill individual initiative and breed mass lethargy against progress than doles and charity, me thinks. But some kind of a prick on my ‘arrogance of affordability’ or on the ‘lack of discipline – lethargy – needless buying’ cycle so that i become responsible… and don’t ‘deprive’ others by boosting demand and inflating prices for them.