Sunday, June 23, 2013

Green Pune, Clean Pune

"Green Pune, Clean Pune" is one of several slogans painted on walls and concrete barriers all over the city. Pune is famous for having one of the most, if not the most, organized and effective waste systems in India. As part of a project my advisor has me working on, I investigated Pune's waste cycle.

"Green Pune, Clean Pune" painted on a wall, ironically next to trash. Photo taken from Google Images.

In Pune, there are several different avenues municipal solid waste (MSW) can follow. Each housing society is served by two waste pickers who belong to the Solid Waste Collection and Handling Cooperative (SWaCH), an enterprise founded by the Kagad Kach Patra Kashtakari Panchayat, the trade union of waste pickers. Each home pays a monthly fee of Rs. 10 to 30 (depending on the area) for waste pickers to directly pick up trash from their homes. This miniscule monthly fee is not how waste pickers make their money, though. They earn cash in the scrap market. They sort the waste and sell the very valuable recyclables to scrap dealers, who in turn sell scrap to larger dealers or wholesalers. Some of these wholesalers then either sell the scrap to "super" wholesalers or process the scrap into usable plastic pellets for manufacturing. 

Perhaps the most interesting recycle-cycle is plastic bags, which are slowly being banned by cities around the world for being non-recyclable. World, take a good look at Pune. One large wholesaler mechanically cleans these bags then processes them into pellets, which are sold to an irrigation company to be melted and molded into drip irrigation pipes. Since the recycled plastic bags are an absurdly cheap material--there is no competing demand for them--the drip pipes are among the cheapest in the world and can be sold at affordable prices to smallholder farmers.

(Actually I still think banning these plastic bags is a good idea. But for cities that are still using them, don't give up hope on them being non-recyclable!)

Waste that does not end up in home trash cans likely ends up in dumpsters or in the streets. This more public garbage is taken care of by the Pune Municipal Corporation, which employs safai karmacharis (cleaning workers) to sweep the streets and empty the dumpsters and then sort all the waste. Organic ("wet") waste is sent to either biogas power plants to supply the city of Pune with electricity or to fertilizer production plants. Recyclable waste goes to recycling processing plants. Non-recyclables mostly go to incinerators or landfills, but Pune has been experimenting with using the waste as syngas fuel for electricity generation.

Large commercial entities such as malls have their own custodial staff who take care of the waste in various ways. Some shopping complexes sell their waste on the scrap market to wholesalers while others send the garbage to major recycling plants.

This whole process is illustrated in the figure I made below (click on the image to enlarge). I'm sorry it's confusing and busy; this is the first time I've attempted to create such a diagram. Two caveats: (1) that process is what ideally happens and (2) that figure excludes the non-unionized waste pickers who go to the landfills to scavenge. A lot of trash slips through the cracks of the system, and the non-unionized waste pickers try to recover some of the valuable recyclable waste that has slipped through. This figure might imply that 100% of recyclables end up recycled, but that's not true. In Pune, almost 50% of plastics end up recycled. But keep in mind that is still extremely high: in the US about 8.2% of recyclable plastics get recycled. (Source.)

Pune's waste cycle. Click on image to enlarge.
Whenever I talk about waste management in India, I like to recall a story from December 2009, when my brother Ben and his friend Joel visited me in Delhi. We went on a trip to northeast India, and on our way back we passed through Kolkata. Ben ate a banana and could not find any trash can to discard his peel. After having seen tons of garbage in the streets (Kolkata can sometimes be particularly dirty), he decided to simply drop the peel where he was standing, in the middle of a plaza. An Indian man came over to Ben and started yelling at him not to throw his trash on the ground. Ben, of course, was exasperated: "Have you seen your streets? You have no right telling me not to litter when you treat your streets like landfills. Everyone else in this filthy city is littering. What am I supposed to do with my trash if there are no trash cans?"

But if you looked around more carefully, you would realize there was not a piece of garbage in the plaza itself--but tons of trash piling up in the streets lining the plaza's border. Street sweepers, like those safai karmacharis in Pune, pick up the trash in the street, but not in the plaza. Thus, Ben should have added his banana peel to an existing pile in the street, rather than dropping it anywhere. However, this is not obvious to an outsider who doesn't know anything about India's waste system and sees waste strewn about in a seemingly indiscriminate way. And really, Ben was right in a sense. It is unhygienic to allow trash to pile up in streets, even if street sweepers or waste pickers will come by later to collect it. Not to mention that it's far from aesthetically or aromatically pleasing.

So yes, the streets of India often appear filthy. When you walk around, you have to watch your feet lest you step in garbage (...or cow dung). But it's important to keep in mind that this littering is part of the waste system, and in fact, putting waste into the hands of professionals, rather than hoping the average citizen can sort his or her waste properly, results in higher recycling rates, as witnessed in Pune.

As I have learned again and again, nothing in India (or anywhere, really) is as it seems on the surface. It's too easy to judge and make assumptions based on first impressions, especially when those impressions are as strong as smelly piles of trash in the street--but those assumptions will almost always be wrong. We have to delve deeper to understand what's actually going on (and we probably still won't fully understand; I certainly have much more to learn!).

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Open source rural technology?

I don't know much about intellectual property law. Especially not in India (other than, perhaps, as it pertains to pharm re: the recent Novartis case). But something IP-related has been bothering me the last few days.

I'm working with an organization that runs a vocational school of sorts for school dropouts. It gives the students technical training, but I don't know if you would necessarily call them mechanics at the end. The curriculum encourages creativity, and the students are involved in designing new, affordable technologies that address problems they face in their villages.

In 1983, students developed a low-cost, low-power tractor suitable for smallholder farmers--a very large group of farmers in India who cannot afford big tractors. Then in 2002, some students significantly improved upon the design. The organization decided to make the design "open source," with the idea being that any farmer anywhere could take this design and build himself a tractor.

But that's not what happened. Instead, or so the story goes, Mahindra, the largest tractor company not only in India but in the world, took the design and now manufactures and sells it, making millions of dollars in profit. (I have no idea if this is true or not. It's very possible Mahindra also came up with an affordable small tractor without any knowledge of this organization's tractor, since it seems fairly obvious that there's a large market for such a product.)

Mech Bull Tractor and agricultural equipment
The organization's tractor
A Mahindra tractor
This organization views this story as a huge success.

I view this story as a huge lost opportunity.

If this story is really true--if indeed Mahindra just took (I would like to say "stole," but it was open source) and modified the organization's design rather than coming up with a similar design independently--then this organization lost out on a lot of money. Not that they have the capacity to mass-manufacture, or that commercialization is their goal. I understand that their primary focus is educating their students. However, had they patented their design, they could have sold it to Mahindra and made some royalties off of the profits. That money could have been invested back in the students by improving facilities and programs, without (or with less) dependence on donors.

This organization does great work educating their students, and their students come up with clever solutions that would improve the quality of life in rural India. I understand that this organization wants to remain non-profit, but it would be really fantastic for the students to see their technologies become a reality, to see their products being sold in villages around India. And maybe these students would earn some money from the royalties and start climbing out of poverty.

Honestly, I don't see how open source technologies could work in rural India. At least not yet. How would smallholder farmers even learn that this new tractor design exists? The organization did zero knowledge dissemination, other than to post some photos and specs on their website (which a poor farmer would never see). And if the farmers did learn about the tractor, how would they go about building it without the necessary resources and mechanical expertise? I guess rural mechanics could make the tractors and sell them--but again, how would they know about the tractor?

If this organization wants to see the technologies their students develop reach the people who would benefit from them, they should consider engaging in partnerships with major manufacturers who have large distribution networks. That way the organization doesn't actually have to do the scaling-up themselves; they can continue to focus on the education. I just think that working with established manufacturers is likely to be a more effective way to disseminate technology than to make the technology open-source.

Besides, people copy products all the time in India without any consequences. Knock-offs of every type of product are super common. (Case in point: I bought a gym bag in Lajpat Nagar that has the word "Reebok" on the front and a Nike swoosh on the side.) The organization could patent the product, sell it to or partner with a company to manufacture and sell, and the product would still effectively be open-source. What's to stop a village mechanic from copying a Mahindra tractor if he wants to?