Every bucket tells a story

Kate Mytty traveled to Muzaffarnagar to study in-depth how households produce waste–and where that waste goes.

waste team

“Most of us, myself included, have no idea how much waste we produce on a daily basis,” writes Tata Fellow Kate Mytty in CoLab Radio. “Our focus was on understanding the magnitude and types of solid waste produced by households and businesses.”

In January, more than 70 people from MIT and the Shri Ram Group of Colleges joined forces to examine the waste management system in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh, India. They broke that complex system down into five distinct areas, such as businesses, compost markets, and the informal sector of ragpickers and Kabadiwalas.

Mytty’s team embarked on an analysis of the waste generated by individual households. The traditional method of quantifying per capita waste generation is to take the total amount of waste collected and divide it by the city’s population. Immediately, the team perceived a flaw: this method assumes that the waste actually gets collected. In Muzaffarnagar, and elsewhere around India, that is far from the case. “All over India…the garbage is not disposed of in a proper way,” says Pankaj Aggarwal, Municipal Chairman of Muzaffarnagar.

A firsthand look at how waste is collected revealed an intricate, and often improvised, ecosystem: “Collectors, who visit about 200 households daily, use a tricycle cart to go from house to house. Announcing their arrival with a whistle, they invite households to bring out their waste. Some households drop it from the roof, others use ropes affixed to buckets that are then lowered down four floors to the cart. The remainder simply hand the waste collector a bucket.”

The overall numbers that Mytty’s team compiled are sobering. “On any single day, in this city with a population of more than 392,451 people, households alone produce more than 123.5 metric tons of waste daily. That is equal in weight to more than 25 Indian elephants.”

The team’s next step is to launch a pilot project aimed at optimizing the city’s waste management system. “We’ll start to explore what types of modifications are needed to encourage behavior change at the household level.”

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Photo: Courtesy of Kate Mytty.