Waste Warriors: Waging a war against waste

Parks, hills, marathon tracks—this group has vowed to clean up all the mess left behind in these spaces


Jodie Underhill and Waste Warriors collecting trash at Gandhi Park in Dehradun. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Jodie Underhill and Waste Warriors collecting trash at Gandhi Park in Dehradun. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

Jodie Underhill, 38, and her Waste Warriors are easy to spot in their forest green T-shirts. Autorickshaw driver Pradip Singh, pointing at Underhill and her team standing outside Dehradun’s Gandhi Park, says, “People who are from another country are trying to keep our country clean. I have seen her picking garbage herself. Why can’t we do it?”

Waste Warriors, a non-profit waste management organization, recently finished a three-month project to clean Gandhi Park. For this they got a funding of Rs.10,000 each from six corporate houses through the Confederation of Indian Industry. The funding initiative has now been taken over by individual donors to keep the park clean.

The garbage collected is segregated, sent for recycling if biodegradable or else to trenching ground and the rest, such as food and garden waste, are composted. “We have an emphasis on recycling as it means using less of virgin material. Also people think that composting will attract flies and stench. But that is not true,” says Underhill.

In December 2008, Underhill came to India from the UK as a tourist. She was appalled at the garbage-lined roads and the stench from clogged gutters and rotting refuse. She decided she couldn’t ignore it, and chose to stay back.

Urban India generates around 68 million tonnes of waste every day and, according to a paper published in October 2013 in the Nature journal, by 2025, South Asia, and “mainly India”, will be the world’s fastest growing region for waste generation.

In March 2009, Underhill’s mission against garbage started in McLeodganj, on the outskirts of Dharamsala. Thanks to the mass clean-up drives she organized, she soon came to be known as the “garbage girl”. Initially, tourists and the locals would stand and stare at her, and laugh. “People would throw paper cups at me and ask me to clean up. There is a stigma attached to cleaning garbage here,” Underhill says. The organization has put a door-to-door waste collection system in place in Dharamsala.

Eventually with a few volunteers, Underhill formed a group called Mountain Cleaners. Its first two major projects were reclaiming a children’s park in Dharamsala and cleaning the Triund hill trekking route.

But soon she realized that the cities also need cleaning. In September 2012, Mountain Cleaners was renamed and registered as Waste Warriors, and started operations from Dehradun. The team consists of 28 members, including project managers at sites, and waste-pickers. They get funds from businesses and individual donors. Waste Warriors currently runs projects in Dharamsala, Jim Corbett National Park and Dehradun.

“We started the Corbett project eight months ago and we have a five-year plan for it,” says Underhill. There are around 100 villages on the periphery of the park that dump waste in the forest area. The Waste Warriors collect garbage from houses and dispose, recycle or compost it.

In 2013, Waste Warriors managed the garbage at the Airtel Hyderbad Marathon. “Though marathons are sponsored, no one wants to sponsor the waste management part,” says Underhill. With the help of volunteers Waste Warriors was able to raise funds to clean up after the nearly 10,000 participants had left. It will also be assisting the waste management process at the Bangalore marathon. “Though we have a dedicated team which tries to ensure zero waste by not using plastic covers for T-shirts and medals, we have invited Waste Warriors to help us with their experience for our marathon on 19 October,” says Nagaraj Adiga, chief coordinator, organizing committee, Shriram Properties Bengaluru Marathon 2014.

However, Waste Warriors has not been welcomed everywhere. “There is a mall here (Dehradun) with a food court which believes it does not need to place dustbins outside the mall. People carry food from there and throw the leftover and disposables outside. We made a proposal to keep the area clean for a charge of just Rs.4,000 a month, but they declined,” says Underhill. Even a well-known international fast-food chain declined the proposal to collect waste from outside the joint where people eat in their cars. Underhill believes it did so because that would have meant acknowledging that it was contributing to the garbage problem.

Underhill is hopeful of becoming a national organization by partnering with local authorities. She believes that small steps such as enforcing the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 1999, which makes segregation and composting of waste mandatory, or making dedicated spaces for construction waste, will go a long way in keeping India clean. “It will only take a little help from the authorities. If we, being so small, can do so much, authorities can definitely do it on a much bigger scale,” she says.

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