• Waste

To build circular cities in India, behavioral change is fundamental – the transformation begins at home

Suraj Nandakumar, CEO and co-founder at Recity Network, believes that India will be completely transformed in ten years — and there is nothing stopping it from happening now. By keeping plastics in the economy and out of the environment, his plastic waste management company is helping to make that transformation a reality. As an urban planner with over ten years’ experience in city planning and billion-dollar infrastructure projects, Nandakumar is dedicated to changing cities and their relationship with plastic waste.

India is a diverse country. This diversity manifests as a complex patchwork of waste management systems. “Every few kilometers, we have a ‘new country’ that speaks a different language and has a completely different method of operations.” Add startling inequality, and the result is a generally poor waste management infrastructure. Nandakumar points out that out of 4,400 towns and smaller cities in India, only 53 are able to finance proper waste collection systems.

“When you look at the scale of India, where we have thousands of cities which are mismanaged, with supply chain systems that are quite inadequate, there is going to be a lot of inefficiency at multiple levels.” A substandard waste management infrastructure also makes it difficult to acquire quality recycled material. Then, on top of that, there are the efficiency losses stemming from all the informal and largely untraceable recycling procedures of questionable quality.

Waste-related issues call for a comprehensive approach and collaboration

Recity’s starting point is that many related issues require a holistic approach that includes three key solutions for diverting waste from environmentally exposed areas: circular cities, packaging and governance.

To build circular cities, Recity collaborates on urban planning with the city administration and stakeholders to ensure waste is prioritized. They also work on governance systems that help these stakeholders come together, from the brand owner, urban administration and waste workers to citizens and groups defined as waste generators. In addition, Recity works on streamlining the supply chain for collection, storage and processing systems, and financing methods, as well as providing the technical information needed to handle large city-wide projects.

Better waste management inspires people to modify their behavior

Central to building circular cities is the premise that transformation begins at home. Nandakumar emphasizes the need to change people’s hearts and minds. “The question we answer when we initiate a behavioral change program is, ‘What’s in it for me to not litter? What’s in it for me to segregate waste into multiple categories at home?’”

To promote behavioral change, Recity representatives go door to door to spread the word about what and how to recycle and hand out cheat sheets on recycling. “We work with people’s behavioral change in terms of how they interact with waste, how they don’t litter and how they are mindful and conscious of how they manage their waste,” says Nandakumar.

He also notes that as people get used to clean streets, they become increasingly reluctant to litter. A better waste management service, and the accompanying cleanliness, thereby helps people internalize their hopes and dreams of a better quality of life. “A service level quality of 100% collection – which ensures that trash is collected every day, that the streets are clean, garbage bins are clean, and so on – gives a stimulus for people to modify their behavior.”

Technology makes it easier for stakeholders to work toward a circular economy

Recity also works to increase the recyclable content of packaging by, among other things, providing a comprehensive set of technology platforms that meet the requirements of all stakeholders in the plastic waste supply chain. “With digital technology we can trace the material and instill a sense of ownership in everyone in the waste supply chain. This way, everyone can easier work toward a circular economy,” adds Nandakumar.

“We work in order to ensure appropriate material quality and industry compliance so brand owners using plastic packaging can be confident that the plastics and other recycled materials they incorporate into their packaging are of an appropriate quality and standard. After all, these brand owners are also accountable to their shareholders and stakeholders at the end of the day.”

Improving waste workers’ quality of life is an indicator of success

Since the goal is to stop plastic pollution in cities, the most obvious impact metric is the amount of waste that is diverted from landfills, oceans and rivers, and returned to the circular economy. To date, Recity’s efforts have prevented more than 53,000 tons of waste from being dumped in landfills and continue to keep an additional 100 tons from being disposed of in landfills daily.

In line with Recity’s integrated approach, the company uses a long list of impact metrics to gauge its progress, ranging from the quality of end products made from recyclates to the quality of life of waste workers. Nandakumar stresses the need to ensure that the provision of a reliable waste management service is economically viable so that people in the waste value chain can support themselves. Achieving profitability, or at least breaking even, is therefore a critical indicator of success. Recity’s initiatives have brought about an additional INR 210 million (EUR 2.6 million) in revenue for city officials and the supply chain.

Also essential to the chain are the often-unsung heroes on the front line: the waste workers. By providing better hygienic facilities and protective gear, among other things, Recity professionalizes them so that they can earn more money and enjoy better health. “We work on their dignity, education, finances, health and multiple other areas where they feel motivated to manage the waste better,” says Nandakumar. Recity has provided employment and training to 2,700 waste workers.

India has the potential to act as the world’s testing ground for waste management

Among other things, Nandakumar believes that the sheer size of India makes it an ideal place to invest in waste management systems and technologies. He says the country is a great place in which there are a lot of companies capable of implementing at scale.

“I would strongly say that the world should invest in India because it holds one of the largest populations. Whatever we can learn from India is definitely implementable across the globe.”

This article is part of a series where different stakeholders discuss ways to redefine recycling systems through value chain innovation. The articles are published following of our virtual roundtable.

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