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Rajavalli Rajiv Vignesh,
Social Entrepreneur, Garbage Bank

‘Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has’
– Margaret Mead

This is the story of the Garbage Bank, a community-run organisation in Virudhunagar, Tamil Nadu, which accepts deposits of segregated garbage from people whom they call contributors (not waste generators), upcycles those deposits into useful items and pays out dividends to contributors for their investments of garbage. Rajavalli Rajiv Vignesh, Social Entrepreneur, Garbage Bank tells her tale.

The origin story

Rajavalli enjoys scenic journeys – the ones where uninterrupted vistas of tall trees and plants in full bloom pass by the train or bus window, or surround her as she walks. Her pleasure, however, dissipates when she comes across patches of land strewn with paper cups, polythene bags and other trash.

Most people react thus. Few take action after their reaction.

Rajavalli started by educating people about the importance of clean roads, and conducted many clean-up drives. The roads would return to their original state – until three days later, when they would become piled up with garbage again. A more permanent solution was imperative.

After meeting several waste management companies and educating herself about recycling, she also chanced upon the Indonesian concept of ‘Garbage Bank’. The Three E formula has plotted her journey since then: Educate the public, Engage students with eco-club activities and Empower workers by making theirs a dignified job.

But what set her apart from hundreds of others who’ve taken up the same cause? This: “When everybody in the waste management field collected user fees from people, the Garbage Bank gave them money in return for the garbage they deposited with us. When people spoke about biomining and dump yard capping, I believed in no dump yards and no incinerators.”

The first hurdle

According to her, learning is comparatively easier than unlearning. To make people unlearn their ‘use and throw’ culture and to learn the ‘use and store’ culture, especially when it comes to garbage, was a huge challenge. Her biggest challenge was to make people understand that their garbage is their problem and not that of a third party.

100% segregation at source

The Garbage Bank believes that waste segregation is a problem that should be addressed at source; not by municipal corporations or their service providers but by waste generators themselves. As of today, 700 families, six institutions and one government hospital segregate their waste before handing it over to them.

The biggest challenge is sorting out the wet waste from dry waste. Rajavalli said: “ We taught our contributors to home-compost their kitchen waste and also ask them to take a pledge to say ‘No’ to single-use plastics. We don’t collect garbage if it is mixed garbage. After wet and dry waste is segregated at each waste generator’s site, they give us all kinds of recyclables and non-recyclables in the dry form. We take this to our godown and sort it further into 50 different types of waste.”

These categories include old clothes, belts, slippers, mattresses, thermocol, tyres etc. Plastic alone is further sorted into 12 different types. This way, they have achieved 100%, granular segregation. Much of the inorganic waste is upcycled into useful products.

Door-to-door collection

The people of the town are mapped geographically and the team runs a battery-operated vehicle to collect their garbage once a week. She shares an example: On Mondays, waste will be collected from one group of streets, on Tuesday, from institutions, on Wednesday, from the outskirts areas and so on.

If there are any contributors who wish to declutter their spaces, they contact the team, which goes to pick up the waste. The team works six days a week.

What of organic waste?

Most people believe that since organic waste degrades naturally, it can be allowed to do so. At landfills, however, this produces methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Rajavalli shared examples of how various types of organic waste should be processed:

  • All kinds of food leftovers, garden debris and kitchen waste should be composted on-site, which will produce a natural, highly nourishing fertiliser.
  • Bulk organic waste like cut wood, branches and crop residue can be used to make biochar.
  • The Garbage Bank collects even used coffee grounds and tender coconut shells, making it possible for the team to feed the biomass briquettes machine.

Garbage pays!

As its name suggests, the Garbage Bank reimburses cash for every 300 kg of waste collected. Initially contributors felt achieving the 300 kg target was impossible. But until now, a total of ₹2,54,000 has been paid to 700 families for the 50,000 kg garbage contributed so far.

“After understanding the value of garbage, people don’t want to just get rid of it. They source-segregate now, and are excited as they get paid for what they thought was just garbage”, Rajavalli concluded.

What is your take on plastic and metal waste?

“Since its mass production in the 50s, more than 80% of the plastic produced so far is sitting in landfills. Less than 10% of the plastic produced worldwide is recycled. Plastic is a versatile, sustainable material which is much better than any kind of alternative.

Metals like mercury and lead, which are used in paints and fluorescent lights, are extremely dangerous for both the environment and people. However, most metals can be recycled.

Just like how Nature knows what to do with fallen leaves and flowers, we should prepare ourselves to deal with used plastic, metals and e-waste. The best method is to erect a Garbage Bank and store it in that. We need to change the fate of scrap, so that human fate can be designed for progress.”

Advances after adversity

“We came close to dropping the idea of collecting waste from door-to-door when one of our staff members named Ravichandran – a true environmental lover who left his job as a security guard to become the first staff member of Garbage Bank – injured his hip after a fall during waste collection. His presence was vital as he was the only person assigned to collect the source-segregated garbage from door to door. But that adversity pushed us to recruit five more staff members with a supervisor, which helped us scale up. So, every time there is a problem, there is progress.”

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