Well-intentioned citizens sometimes tackle the waste crisis by placing the garbage out of sight. In place of the dumps, they leave behind a patch of ground devoid of detritus. They even paint the walls nearby, hoping to incite a fervent bout of aesthetics among passersby and the citizenry at large. Sometimes, they clear the walls of posters. Whatever they do, they leave behind a patch of less degraded “clean”.

This is a cop-out.

Picking trash from one place and putting it elsewhere does not solve the problem. Instead, it sends out the facile message that trash is largely a visual nuisance, half-solved once it is secure in a dustbin. If this is the message, the solution is defacing and erasing the ugliness – precisely what a clean-up does. But what does it do for health and pollution?

There is a lot that goes wrong even after we securely place our trash in the bin – its transportation leads to emissions; spills are commonplace on roads as the vehicles jauntily move onwards; landfills pollute the air, water and soil; waste-to-energy plants are dioxin monsters that fill our bodies with toxins. And who likes the smoking hillocks of trash that defiantly dot our withering, sad cities? These unfortunate sites are where assiduously swept and collected waste is transferred in typical urban fashion to those parts of the city that have not been able to resist their own institutional poisoning. All over India, villages have stood up to fight against being turned into urban dumpsites and to ask that they be treated with dignity. Bengaluru faced this dilemma this past year. In Delhi, there have been protests against new landfills. But these are exceptions: most Indian trash becomes someone else’s burden to bear. The well-meaning volunteers are unlikely to have intended this, or even imagined it, but waste flows in many cities today exacerbate inequity. Clean-ups transfer toxins instead of “de-toxing” the city.

Who likes the smoking hillocks of trash that defiantly dot our withering, sad cities? (Credit: Money Sharma/AFP)
Who likes the smoking hillocks of trash that defiantly dot our withering, sad cities? (Credit: Money Sharma/AFP)

The problem with spot-cleaning

Clean-ups also tend to send a dumbed down message about a complex matter. Friends and acquaintances who have volunteered to be part of these drives say that surely, picking up waste has some civic value. It is the one thing they can do as regular folks with a packed life, they point out. My understanding is that people should not be fooled by the idea that “something is better than nothing”. Taking civic action only makes sense when it results in change for the better. When people pick up fallen trash and bin it as an exercise to upgrade the landscape, they privilege this act over other, more essential ones: composting, campaigning for large-scale trash segregation, or reducing their consumption significantly. These are much harder to do, and do not come with shortcuts. But if these are not encouraged and made popular, then the easier and un-impactful measures will continue to top the popularity charts. Should we not aspire to be responsible?

Visual pollution is the privilege of those who claim a city in a particular way – people who do not have to cling to a desperate, half-right over a piece of land or negotiate their informal right to live, work, cook, sleep, pray, die, procreate all on patches of land the size of an average middle-class apartment washroom. I do not criticise clean-ups because the better off embrace them the most, but their popularity underscores how dominant one viewpoint about what makes our cities better is. Ask the many residents of sub-standard housing, relocated to the peripheries of cities, and you will sense the difference.

Doing good feels virtuous, and indeed, that sense of fulfilment is the hallmark of spot-cleaning. Still, it would be genuinely virtuous if we volunteered our time for deeper good – composting, pushing restaurants and railway caterers to stop using single-use plastics, training others to segregate waste, for example – knowing it is much messier and harder to get done.

This is the first part of a three-part series on fighting the waste crisis responsibly. Read the other parts here.

Bharati Chaturvedi is Founder and Director, Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group.