Waste generated by online food delivery and e-commerce sites has drastically increased Bengaluru’s garbage problem. So what are we going to do about it?

Is the waste from your online deliveries choking BengaluruChange.org
Delve Environment Monday, July 08, 2019 - 17:34

Mansoor Ahmed picks up a Swiggy container, with half eaten food left over in the plastic. Nearby is a tetra pack, once again, half filled. “If people had finished drinking the contents of this box and washed it before throwing the pack, this could have been recycled,” Mansoor says. Pointing to the food leftovers, he adds, “And this can even affect the health of the people who collect your garbage.”

At the garbage collection centre at Jayanagar in Bengaluru, Mansoor – the site supervisor – and his team of 12 have their work cut out for them. The team has just returned to their workspace after going door-to-door in the area to collect the solid waste generated by each household. Now, they have to segregate the waste that they’ve collected into approximately 30 to 35 categories, like coconut shells, tetra packs, milk packets, cloth, etc. And once the segregation is done, the waste is sent to wholesale scrap dealers who later ship it off to recycling centres.

“I have an experience of 20 years in this industry, I’ve worked at this garbage collection centre for seven years,” Mansoor tells TNM. “Garbage is increasing. Packaging waste is a huge part of it. It’s only increasing, it’s not decreasing. Now everyone orders online,” he says, pointing to a pile of plastic containers from food delivery companies like Swiggy and Zomato in one corner and other packaging waste in another. 

According to the Bruhat Bengaluru Mahanagara Palike (BBMP), Bengaluru currently produces 5,757 tonnes of garbage per day – double what it produced just two years ago. Sixty four percent of this is wet waste, and 28% of it is dry waste. The rest is categorised as inert waste. Of the dry waste, packaging waste is a big contributor, says BBMP. 

Randeep D, Assistant Commissioner of Solid Waste Department of the BBMP, tells TNM that there is a lot of packaging waste that ends up in landfills – however, the Palike lacks figures, he says. 

Unboxing e-commerce waste

In September 2018, science journalist Sandhya Ramesh uploaded a 37-second video to her Twitter account, of a delivery from Amazon. As she opened the carton, it was filled with little pockets of air, packed in plastic – airbags to ensure that the items that are shipped don’t get damaged. As she removed rows and rows of airbags, the actual ‘content’ of the box was finally revealed: a bottle of cleaning liquid, that she had ordered as part of a larger order, but which the company decided to send in a box large enough to contain multiple such bottles. 

The replies to her tweet – and indeed the experiences of several everyday consumers of these e-commerce sites – show this is not a one-time problem. Especially in a city like Bengaluru, where e-commerce has grown manifold over the last few years, the problem of waste needs a critical look. 

According to a report in the Livemint in December 2018, the number of new users in India’s $18 billion online retail market has surged this year, as cheap data, faster internet connections and proliferation of smartphones made online shopping accessible to people in smaller cities. The top two online retailers, Flipkart and Amazon India, contributed to the bulk of the growth. Several officials at Flipkart and Amazon said new user growth climbed more than 50% in the past year. Amazon India’s initiatives such as investments in infrastructure, financing, launch of a Hindi version and start of Amazon Easy stores in small towns helped improve the shopping experience for customers, said a spokesperson in an email.

Environmental activists and citizen groups say that companies must think about the consequences of their business practices, beyond just profits. 

Harini Nagendra, who is a noted ecologist and a professor at the Azim Premji University, tells TNM that a good chunk of Bengaluru’s garbage woes can be dealt with if e-commerce companies were more conscious. There have been many cases where citizens have tried to bring awareness to the companies regarding the implications of their practice. According to her, there are multiple online petitions and social media campaigns to ask the companies to stop packaging the products they send in vast quantities of plastic, thermocol and other non-recyclable material, and to look for better alternatives. But there has been no response from companies, she adds. 

“For effective action, the companies must step up. It is, or should be, an integral part of the moral ethos underpinning their Corporate Social Responsibility efforts to first do no harm – not to pollute the cities which nurture their growth. So, the responsibility lies with these companies, to the greatest extent,” Harini says. 

Companies, for their part, say they’re trying. Rajneesh Kumar the Chief Corporate Affairs Officer of Flipkart Group says, “On packaging, there are several initiatives we have undertaken to reduce the use of plastic, including by leveraging tech in our workflow at fulfillment centers to optimise the type and volume of packaging to be used, instead of leaving it to human decision. We have also introduced “no package shipping” for select SKUs (Stock Keeping Units) where it does not affect customer delight.”

TNM also reached out to Amazon for a response on packaging waste, however, they are yet to reply to our queries.

‘Food poisoning’ the environment?

“Every day, I come across 200 kilos of mixed waste, majority of which is containers filled with leftover food. This mixed waste is a huge problem as it cannot be recycled. So, we send it to ACC cement to be incinerated, most of it also ends up in landfills,” says Mansoor.

In 2016, the state government imposed a blanket ban on manufacturing, storing, distributing and using single-use plastics such as carry bags, flex banners, plates, cups and spoons. However, there is no ban on plastic containers. 

BBMP source tells TNM that the Palike is yet to figure out what to do about food delivery waste and therefore they just send it to landfills at present.

However, according to the source, “Single use plastics are anyway banned. We are only urging companies to avoid other disposables also like plantain leaf, paper cups, plastic mineral water bottles. BBMP has to enforce plastic ban and also ensure scientific waste management. Single use plastic ban enforcement is a work in progress. Repeated drives along with shutting down illegal plastic manufacturing units is the way ahead.”

Mixed waste on the other hand cannot be recycled, and is sent to landfills. According to Harini Nagendra, packaging waste adds significant volume to the mountains of garbage piled in Bengaluru’s landfills, which are located outside the city, rising to enormous heights and polluting the lives of residents in nearby villages, endangering their health and ruining their livelihoods. The waste is often burnt, poisoning the air. The leachate from this waste, as it slowly degrades, enters the ground where it pollutes ground water. Packaging waste is also ingested by cows, dogs and wildlife, endangering them.

While companies like Zomato have recognised the waste problem created by food packaging, a lot more needs to be done in terms of finding solutions, say environmentalists. 

A spokesperson for Zomato tells TNM, "We realise that the unintended consequence of our business and the industry is the tonnes of plastic packaging material which ends up in the ocean. Hence, we’ve been taking baby steps to reduce our impact on the environment.” In order to cull the increasing implications of their packaging Zomato says they have implemented several plans like the “don’t send cutlery option” on the app to prevent the consumption of single use plastics. They also have environment-friendly carry bags. As part of their Hyperpure network they will soon launch high quality paper-based packaging materials, they say. 

Similarly, Swiggy has launched Swiggy Packaging Assist which gives their restaurant partners access to eco-friendly packaging options made of paper and glass. Currently, Swiggy is working with design consultants and manufacturers to come up with improved design and recyclability of packaging solutions. Swiggy’s spokesperson says, “We are also in the midst of rolling out a feature for users to opt out of receiving disposable plastic cutlery in their orders. We will work with relevant bodies, restaurant partners and our users to promote the need to start addressing this issue through other long-term and sustainable plans.”

The BBMP has held consultation meetings with restaurant owners and online food delivery services like Swiggy and Zomato, asking them to switch to reusable packaging. The BBMP has recommended that steel containers be used for food delivery. However, restaurant owners say that using steel containers and ensuring it is returned from the customer to the restaurant is logistically impossible. "We have asked them to figure our a way to make it work. Since the government has not banned plastic containers, we cannot force restaurants to not use it," Randeep added.

We, the people

 But the onus cannot only be on the corporate – the citizen needs to do just as much, as activists. 

To address the waste problem, BBMP ordered compulsory segregation of waste by all households, which came into effect in February 2017. The sanitation workers have been instructed to collect only segregated waste from households. Fines are levied on those who are non-compliant. However, this has done little to change the behaviour of Bengaluru’s people.

Uma, a pourakarmika who works in the Indiranagar area, tells TNM that no matter what rules the government brings in, the waste that she collects every day is rarely segregated. “There are some individuals who segregate the waste and help us out, but most people say, ‘Why should we segregate when you are paid to do so?’ So it’s not easy for us.” Uma also says one of her colleagues was admitted in the ICU of Chinmaya Mission hospital after she came into contact with wet waste that was old and poorly managed. 

The mind-set of the general public towards waste management is one of the biggest challenges, according to Wilma Rodrigues, CEO and Founder of Saahas Zero Waste, a non-profit organisation that coordinates with the BBMP in the field of waste management. She says, “Citizens need to be aware of the consequences of the waste that they generate. Reducing and reusing is the first step, segregating waste at the source is the next.” 

In order to bring awareness, several organisations like Eco-watch have worked towards sensitizing people via campaigns to educate people regarding waste management methods. Akshay Heblikar the director of project says, “Can we not change our lifestyle? Let us simplify things. We can go to the market and get things.”

Randeep D says, “Go for reusables. There are other viable options like cloth, paper, biodegradable items. Because at the end of the day, plastic doesn’t die. It’s there for the next ten generations.”

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