Reimagining Waste: How Can Immersion be the Keyword for Innovation?

                                                  The logo for the Reimagine Waste Hackathon

                                                  The logo for the Reimagine Waste Hackathon

What is the lifecycle of a banana? your mobile phone? the plastic bag that you used to pack your supermarket shopping? the cover of the cookies that you ate today? where do they come from until they fall into your hands? and most importantly where do they go after they leave your hands? can you potentially harm someone by eating a pack of biscuits today? can you kill a creature? make someone’s job harder? did you imagine that you can create an economic opportunity for someone else? or maybe contribute to balancing the crazy fluctuation in climate that no one is failing to notice around the world?

Surprisingly, out of all the things I couldn’t imagine writing about, here I write about waste. Why should I waste my time thinking about waste? I was also in your shoes and I had this thought before. However, what India got me to know was that waste is not just a problem for activists or stakeholders; it's a life threatening issue for every single one of us!

On March 26th and 27th, I attended two-kick off days of a 45-day hackathon organized by the Industrial Institute of Science Bangalore (IIS), specifically hosted by the Center for Product Design and Management (CPDM). The hackathon was under the name: Reimagine Waste with a slogan of: Hacking for a Clean Nation and a theme of: How Can We Make the Life of the Waste Collector Easier, Smarter and Healthier? Hackathon is a term adopted from the IT sector but it is basically getting together a group of people to hack a problem and unlock it, find solutions for it within a certain time frame. Usually hackathons involve designers, techies, engineers, social entrepreneurs, concerned citizens, business gurus, academics, researchers, policy analysts, industry experts and others.

The Center for Product Design and Management- Institute of Industrial Science Bangalore

The Center for Product Design and Management- Institute of Industrial Science Bangalore

My problem with many of the hackathons that I attended were that first, they were extensively tech-based and this eliminates tackling social problems that might not seem attractive to techies and second, they were shallow in terms of the solutions they provided given the narrow timeframe (usually 48 hours to produce a prototype of a solution) and the lack of indepth information provided on the respective chosen field to be hacked and the root causes of the problems. They were fun events but I was never sure of the results, how sustainable or system changing they were. My judgment is ofcourse limited by the experience of the hacks I attended.

Attending the Reimagine Waste Hackathon was by far my best experience, in fact, I not only learnt and grew, I felt extremely humbled and gracious. The absolute that makes this experience stand out was how the concept of “immersion” was applied. Immersion is what I otherwise learnt in my previous job (and lifetime – really!) at Ashoka as “apprenticeship”- the most essential preparatory stage in the life of a social innovator/entrepreneur/activist – the deep understanding of the field! And I tell you, India, with a heritage of “Guru to Students” practice, has no shortage of “apprenticeship” experiences across all fields.

For the first day of the hackathon, 100+ participants were gathered from all walks of life ranging from people with 15 – 20 years of experience in the field to people who championed initiatives of waste management in their neighborhood complexes to others, like me, who are newbies to the sector. The exchange of conversations was fascinating among all, to say the least. All participants were lead in different buses to a tour of the city and of the field of waste management in Bangalore. As we toured the city of Bangalore in our bus, facilitators invited us to observe the garbage piles on the street, think of the garbage components, the products lifecycles until they end up in waste, identify and understand our consumption habits, analyze who the stakeholders of the waste management field are and simulate conversations among them.

As part of the tour, we visited several social enterprises that come along the value chain of waste management. Some teams visited waste collection centers, this is where the waste comes after being collected from your house, especially if it is not segregated, others visited waste segregation and processing centers, and this is where waste gets segregated for different usages. Waste in India is largely segregated into wet (organic), dry and sanitary waste whereby dry waste is segregated into around 25 categories like plastic and metal that can be recycled or upcycled, wet waste is converted into either compost that can be sold for farmers to grow their crops in replacement of fertilizers or into bio gas to fuel kitchens, as for sanitary waste, it is usually rejected waste that cannot be used and is either buried or burnt in landfills. Some participants visited electronic and construction waste segregation and recycling plants while others visited markets where dry waste is sold for recyclers. All of the previous is pretty much on the formal, institutionalized end of the waste management value chain.

On our tour, we organically stopped and interacted with sweepers on the streets. And to my luck, our bus also visited a colony of waste pickers, people who work informally for their own interest, not employed by anyone and who constitute a complete parallel economy. I, unfortunately, did not get to interact much with the informal waste pickers or document with pictures because they were in the process of evacuating their houses. Just 48 hours before our visit to them, the owner of a lavish apartments’ complex that overlooks the waste collectors colony has threatened them and commanded they relocate to a new place – there was no legal case filed, it was all a power dynamics game. During our visit, the waste pickers were evacuating, gathering their lives, families, tents and business (their garbage) into piles!

Back to the Institute of Industrial Science in Bangalore, every participating group in the hackathon shared their experiences and what they saw with the larger group to connect the dots. As we toured the city of Bangalore to get a glimpse into the life and the bigger system of the people we should hack and design for, these people also got a glimpse of our lives. The last presentation and sharing of the day was from a group of 30 informal waste pickers who, as we toured the city, got to tour the Institute of Industrial Science themselves, see the research centers, the prototypes produced, the technologies used and as they called it: the “super computers”. As much as we were given a chance to be immersed in their world, they equally got a chance to see what the possibilities that the world of science, technology and innovation can offer them and how innovation can be used to make their lives better.

       Waste Pickers visiting different departments of the Institute of Industrial Science

       Waste Pickers visiting different departments of the Institute of Industrial Science

For the rest of the days, as teams formed and decided on problems to hack and potential prototype solutions, every team had at least one waste picker as a member of the team. Waste pickers had to have a say in what is designed for them, infact, they were the drivers of the conversation. Even as we attended a fancy design workshop in a big auditorium in English, every word was translated to the waste pickers and their inputs were taken at every point. They were highlighted as they should be; the stars of the day, the champions who take care of our waste, who face many hardships just to make sure our shit gets wiped –excuse my language! The hope, faith and openness that I saw in every waste picker’s eye and attitude were very humbling and frightening at the same time, there is so much responsibility on the shoulders of the 100 youth in this room to really make the lives of these waste pickers better, healthier, smarter and easier. As I looked across the room and saw the teams forming, the awareness of problems deepening and the ideas for solutions bubbling, I knew that there is hope at the end of the tunnel!

Just like Egypt and the Arab region, where I come from, India has one of the largest youth bulges and they have the same energy we have in our part of the world. The same vibrancy, passion and strive for a better world. Together we create a new language that transcends barriers and borders of nations.

There are incredible challenges that face the waste management sector in India and across the world, especially in the Global South, it is pretty much a mafia and there is corruption at every level of the system. There is gold in waste and there are so many guardians that are making sure no one really knows the value that lies in a proper waste management system or gets to benefit from it. But there are also incredible movements of other people who break through these guardians and who make sure people are aware and are concerned about waste management and the potentials it holds from creating economic opportunities, reaching a more balanced ecosystem and alleviating the suffering of animals to rescuing the depletion of our natural resources and decreasing our consumption habits.

Several ideas were pitched to be prototyped in the coming days during the hackathon. The Institute of Industrial Science in Bangalore and the School of Product Design and Management is providing technology and production materials for the youth along with a troupe of 40 researchers, academics, policy analysts and entrepreneurs who act as mentors for the youth as they innovate their disruptive solutions and ofcourse above all, the domain experts, the waste pickers, the people we design for, whose say is the final. The youth will be hacking, prototyping and testing over the next 9 days, after which winners will be announced and they will be given a 45 day challenge with complete support to launch their products and services for the theme of the hackathon.

For sharing the inspiration, here are some examples of ideas that were pitched:

§  Giving the waste picker the same dignity as your pizza delivery boy or Uber driver. Design apparels, name tags, a helpline to report cases of abuse or disrespect and resource centers for the community of waste pickers to get together.

§  Mobile applications that go connects the full chain of waste management, think of how "Otlob" operates in Egypt or "Swiggy" in India. Connecting households to waste pickers in their area according to category of waste, for example waste pickers for plastic or newspaper or wet waste ..etc, you get to track your waste and rate your waste picker and where it went afterwards. On the other hand, it connects the waste picker to the segregation center or the recycler. 

§  Educational programs on waste segregation at the source being the household or the commercial establishments

§  A cooperative model for waste pickers to be small business owners

§  Automated waste pick-up and segregation devices to be used by waste pickers to alleviate their back pain as they bend to pick up the waste at every house

§  Automated push carts for waste pickers that also have waste segregation sensor functionality

§  Hygienic masks and gloves with tactile sensors for waste pickers

§  A myriad of ideas and business models on usages of: biogas, fuels and composts

§  Applications that connect waste pickers to recycling plants, shops and businesses

§  Ideas to have communities to pressure corporations to have different packaging models that are eco-friendly

These were some practical tips that I took away from the hackathon for a practice of a more conscious lifestyle when it comes to waste management:

§  Carry your own bottle of water

§  Buy products with less packaging and simple packaging (by the way, laminate veneers which is what most companies around the world use for packaging is non-recyclable!!)

§  Buy products that are produced/manufactured/grown as close to your city as possible

§  Try growing tomatoes and greens at home from your wet waste

§  Avoid small sachets

§  Carry your own container for buying cooked food/takeaway food

§  Carry your own reusable bags

§  Install a portable dustbin in your car

This is an invitation for youth to investigate the field of waste management, reimagine and innovate for it so we can have a cleaner nation; and for everyone of us, the next time we interact with our waste pickers, let us view them as professionals who are doing one of the hardest jobs in the world to alleviate us of the burden of taking care of our waste. Another invitation for everyone of us is to think of where every product we buy will end up, if it cannot be recycled, upcycled or converted into a useful material after you are done with it, do not buy it. We all better pay attention to our own waste before we get consumed by it. Because hope and talk are not enough, I invite you to join in the fight for cleaner nations around the world!

Greenest regards,

Nariman Moustafa

IDEX Fellow,

January’16 Cohort