Single use plastic waste is one of the current hot topics worldwide. One city in India has come up with an innovative solution to help reduce rubbish, make better roads – and feed hungry people all at one go. By Jeremy Torr.
Ambikapur, ndia. September 10 2019. Want a free meal? Nip over to Ambikapur in India’s heavily-populated central east, and drop into the Garbage Café. All you need to do is hand over 1kg of plastic waste, and you will get a tasty curry. Inspired by similar recycling cafes that have opened across Europe, the new initiative has a three pronged approach: cut rubbish, provide food, and source building materials. And it is working.
"Everybody is welcome to donate plastic,” enthused Ambikapur mayor Ajay Tirkey at the launch earlier this year. “Preparations are in full swing!" he said, adding that as part of the city’s commitment to social welfare, the cafe will be mainly run by women. They will be exchanging a fresh curry with rice, lentils, and papadams for one kilo of plastic waste that would probably take a couple of hours to collect, said Tirkey. For slow pickers, 500g of plastic will get the rubbish remover a breakfast of samosas, lentil doughnuts or stuffed flatbreads.
Although single-use plastics are banned in many Indian states, the country still manages to discard more than 25,000 tonnes of plastic every day. The majority of those bags and packets end up dumped in streets, drains and landfills – or end up clogging rivers and the coastal beaches seas.
Mayor Tirkey said that the café will run from the city’s main bus stand, funded initially by local authorities but with a backup proposal to get more from government Local Area Development Scheme (MPLADs) coffers once it gets more popular.
The organisers of the scheme said there were two reasons why they came up with the idea. “First, the growing rise of plastic, particularly carry bags, has become a serious issue despite running constant checks on various commercial establishments,” noted Manoj Singh, Ambikapur Municipal Commissioner in an interview. “So, through this (project), we are trying to address the plastic problem. Secondly, there are some 100-odd homeless local families can now also be provided with meals,” he added.
And even better, the plastic collected by the municipal corporation will be used to construct roads. Shredded plastic makes the road surface more durable because water does not permeate through it during monsoons, and it has the added attraction that the rural development agency’s Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana recommends plastic granules and asphalt mix be used for road construction to remote areas.
Ambikapur has already started using this circular economy approach, as part of the city’s cleanliness campaign. In 2019, Ambikapur was declared India’s second cleanest city, up 15 places from 2018. And so far, the green revolution is paying off.
As one of the first cities in India to start the practice of waste segregation in 2015, Ambikapur is one of the few cities that are making money from their waste policies.
Every household has to sort waste into wet and dry waste, such as kitchen scraps and biodegradables, separate from non-biodegradable plastic bags, plastic packaging, bottles, cardboard and more. Then a squad of some 450 sanitation workers fan out across the city every morning to collect the segregated waste in trucks and on bicycle carts.
The waste is then carted to 17 primary centres where it is sorted into plastics, metal and electronic items which are sold on specialist recyclers, or organics. Pure organic waste is reused for cattle, poultry and other animal feed, and inedible organics are fed into a specialist biogas digester or sent for composting or landfill – with almost everything either re-used or sold to commercial operations.
The benefits of seeing waste as an asset seem to be resonating with other Indian cities too. Up in remote Siliguri, West Bengal, alumni of Goethals Memorial School organised a recent 'food for plastic' programme. "We're giving food in exchange of 500gm of plastic, to create awareness … about plastic waste,” said SP Singh Saluja of the Goethals Memorial School. “There is a tremendous response from the people. This will help in saving our environment as plastic is thrown here and there to clog drains and (is) the cause of floods. Further, it is lethal for animals who consume it.”
So full bellies, greener roads, fewer sick animals and less wind-blown plastic bags all flow positively from the Garbage Café initiative. Not bad for all concerned; as Mayor Tirkey puts it, it is a real win-win that benefits everybody.
“Our motto is to involve … people in managing the city’s waste effectively and in return (the city) corporation will help take care of them,” he said.