Ted Mathys

Ted Mathys (Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group): Ted earned a Bachelor’s degree in international relations from Carleton College. His research focused on the social dynamics of achieving environmental sustainability in the context of globalization. At the time of his fellowship, Ted was pursuing a degree in international environmental policy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. After his fellowship, Ted wrote: “I learned to undertake rigorous research in difficult conditions. More than this, I was challenged to think about poverty and (the) environment in much more complex ways.”



Follow the Cornflakes

09 Jul

In the last week I discovered how wastepickers in Delhi are unwittingly converting my breakfast into lucrative carbon credits without receiving a cent of the profits.

Every morning before heading off to the Chintan office I eat a bowl of cornflakes with a banana. It’s both the minor indulgence of a Midwestern American guy living abroad and a method of giving my stomach one break per day from the spicy and voluminous curries, dals, and masala dishes that otherwise constitute my meals.

"The Usual"

"The Usual"

Several days ago I looked up from the little archipelago of flakes floating in my milk to the cereal box and banana peel, curious about their fate.  Like most kitchen waste in Delhi, they’ll be tossed in the trashcan together. I try to separate the recyclables from the organics, but I suspect that once they leave the kitchen they are all mixed up anyway.

Since this is a common “service apartment,” there is a gentleman named Radu who lives with the landlord downstairs and swings by occasionally to clean and empty the trash. I’m always curious where the heck it goes. There is no curbside pickup; I see no large dustbins anywhere on the block; and unlike my first apartment in Delhi, here there is no independent door-to-door wastepicker who rings the bell each day to collect the waste.

In situations like this, the family helpers often take the garbage directly to the neighborhood “dhalao,” or disposal unit. So today I marched over to the dhalao nearby, where I met a group of wastepickers meticulously segregating the incoming trash into organics, which they can’t use, and recyclables, which they can. It is here where my banana peel and cereal box part ways.

The Dhalao

The dhalao in my neighborhood. The dump bin in the foreground is full of waste that the wastepickers can't recycle. Behind the bin inside the structure I met a half dozen men segregating waste.

The brunt of waste in dhalaos comes directly from private residences, and the rest arrives on the rickshaws and backs of the wastepickers themselves. Dhalaos provide small but crucial space for segregation in an otherwise incomprehensibly dense city. City trucks then collect what remains after the wastepickers have finished sorting at the dhalaos and transport it to the city dumps.

These wastepickers work out of the dhalao in my neighborhood in the southern part of New Delhi.

These wastepickers work out of the dhalao in my neighborhood in the southern part of New Delhi.

Here’s where it gets crazy. Such thoroughly sorted waste is perfect for composting.  And as I wrote last week, composting is one method of keeping wet waste out of landfills where it would otherwise decompose under anaerobic conditions, releasing methane (a potent greenhouse gas) into the atmosphere. So the two government entities in the area, the New Delhi Municipal Council (NDMC) and the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) have teamed up with a private firm to create a composting unit to earn greenhouse gas emissions reduction credits.

I visited this composting unit, in Okhla, and spoke with the manager.  The 200 tons of pre-segregated organic waste that arrives each day is delivered for free by the NDMC and MCD. It comes mostly from dhalaos, and because the waste has been pre-sorted by the wastepickers, there are huge savings for the composting unit and city. In fact, the manager was surprisingly deferential and spoke of the necessity of the wastepickers in his business model. After seven weeks of windrow composting, my banana peel becomes organic fertilizer, which is then sold to a wholesale fertilizer company for profit.  The wastepickers, at present, see none of the proceeds.

Bags of organic fertilizer ready to be sold from the Okhla composting unit.

Bags of organic fertilizer, the final product of the Okhla composting plant, ready to be trucked off and sold to a fertilizer wholesaler.

This project also has been approved for greenhouse gas emissions reduction credits through the Clean Development Mechanism (CDM). The CDM is an offset scheme developed through the Kyoto Protocol whereby industrialized countries with emission-reduction commitments can finance and implement emission-reducing projects in developing countries in order to help meet their own Kyoto targets.

The Okhla composting plant is slated to receive emissions reduction credits amounting to 234,231 metric tones of CO2 equivalent over a seven-year period. At current carbon prices this amounts to roughly 3.5 million dollars. Who knows what the firm’s initial investment in the composting unit was, but it’s clear that the land was free, the waste is delivered for free, and the hard work of the wastepickers effectively subsidizes the composting unit. Composting is a great thing for the climate, but if those who are responsible for its benefits are shut out of the process, social justice is jettisoned for green profit.

In pursuit of even more CDM credits and some electricity, the city now has plans to site a waste-to-energy plant next door. Since waste-to-energy plants often burn dry, combustible waste to heat their boilers and turn their turbines, they are in direct competition with the wastepickers for the city’s recyclable waste content. They also have poor track records in developing countries and many times have worse energy and emissions balances than traditional recycling of the sort that wastepickers undertake. It’s a shame that in pursuit of ostensibly “clean” energy, the livelihoods of some India’s hardest working urban poor are jeopardized.

Thus far, this sign is all that exists of the proposed waste-to-energy plant.

Thus far, this sign is all that exists of the proposed waste-to-energy plant.

The good news is that wastepickers and NGOs who support them are beginning to organize around these issues.  At the recent climate talks in Bonn, a coalition of wastepickers from around the world held a roundtable discussion and press conference to a packed audience in order to address unsustainable CDM projects that affect their work. Chintan is among this dynamic global network of activists who are pressing hard for more inclusive, rational, and sustainable policies on waste and climate.

Posted By Ted Mathys

Posted Jul 9th, 2009

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