Shutting off the Tap: Managing Waste in the Development World

As time goes on, each fellow develops a special relationship with the topic of their project, be it honey hunting, silk scarves, or millet. In my case, (as odd as it may sound) I have grown exceptionally fond of solid waste management (SWM), the theme of my project at the Madras Crocodile Bank. Yet, this was just a matter of putting a name to something I’ve always been passionate about. From as early as I can remember, I was a self-proclaimed “eco-freak.” I tried my hardest to “be green” within the constraints of my adolescent world. Though “SWM” wasn’t part of my vocabulary, it was a part of my attitude and behavior. Seeing people wasting resources of any sort would (and still does) elicit a very real and debilitating physiological response within me.

The horrors of locker clean-out day in 8th grade still haunt me. I remember watching helplessly as people threw their belongings into the trashcans. Mirrors, shelves, books, paper, notebooks, pencils, all in working condition, went straight into the bin. Not reused, nor recycled. It killed me. I skipped lunch that day, desperately scampering about the hallway to remove every recyclable and reusable item from each trashcan. But to my dismay, when I proceeded to place the recyclables into the recycling bin, I noticed it was already littered with trash. Why?? It was SO easy. Every trash can in the entire school was coupled with a recycling bin, yet people still put the wrong items into each, rendering the contents of the bin “unrecyclable”. At that naïve age, I failed to comprehend the apparent foolishness of my classmates. And at the same time, I wondered why I cared so much. It was only much later on when I realized that my parents had sensitized me from a young age to “not waste.” (It only seems natural to mention the importance of education here, however we will get to that soon!) Yet, in my ears I can still hear what my dad once told me: “Avu dear, you can keep on picking things out of trash cans, but that won’t make people stop throwing things in there.”

That hurt. The truth of it hurt. And uncannily enough, this little bit of wisdom from my dad forms the theory behind my SWM project at the Madras Crocodile Bank today. In keeping with a commonly used analogy of an overflowing tap, rather than trying to mop up the spilled water, it is important to first shut off the tap. That means strengthening infrastructure to deal with solid wastes, reducing consumption of resources, and most importantly, educating youth about proper SWM practices.

Shut off the tap before you start mopping the floor! (Used from
Shut off the tap before you start mopping the floor! (Used from

If there is one thing I’ve learned through my project, it is that SWM is a community-based task and India epitomizes this fact. In India, SWM is handled at the level of Urban Local Bodies, so effective SWM is highly dependent upon the commitment and cooperation of each resident. If one person refuses, the system has the potential to halt or break down.

This situation is reminiscent of Garret Hardin’s “Tragedy of the Commons,” which describes how a common shared resource can be neglected by individuals in the pursuit of their own personal gain. The famous example describes the effect of unregulated grazing upon shared lands, termed a “commons.” If each person acts in their own interest as they freely graze their cattle in the commons, the commons will eventually suffer. With regards to waste management, Hardin states that “the rational man finds that his share of the cost of the wastes he discharges into the commons is less than the cost of purifying his wastes before releasing them… [locking us] into a system of ‘fouling our own nest.’” When there is no centralized system of waste collection and processing, the easiest method of waste disposal for each individual is to dump the waste outside of their living space. Unfortunately in India, this has led to the normalization of littering, as there is no social stigma against it. As long as there is already litter on the street, adding something to the pile doesn’t seem to matter. If any change is to come about, we must change the attitudes of people towards acceptable SWM practices.

Used from "The Tragedy of the Commons: Reconsidered." Spinach In Our Teeth. N.p., 11 Nov. 2011. Web. 15 July 2017.
An alternative representation of the Tragedy of the Commons. (Used from “The Tragedy of the Commons: Reconsidered.”)

Normally when we think of development, we think of human rights, public health, and livelihoods; not conservation. My extraordinary co-fellow, Tim Hefflinger, and I had the opportunity at the Endpoint Conference to suggest otherwise. Our presentation, titled “Doing Development Where the Wild Things Are,” (Tim’s handiwork!) explored how environmental conservation went hand in hand with development work. At the nexus of human development and environmental protection lies a unique space where both can be mutually benefited by unique solutions to real problems. In India, waste collection and management, which is a crucial part of environmental protection, is increasingly driven by the private and NGO sector. For example, an organization called Hand in Hand India has been working to clean up the historic town of Mahabalipuram. They do this by training self-help group members, whom they call “Green Friends,” to go door to door to distribute bins and teach residents about proper segregation of organic and inorganic wastes. After a few years of doing this, the organization has managed to engage about 80% of the households in the town to correctly segregate wastes, which are then picked up and sustainably processed by Hand in Hand. These are the unique and resourceful approaches that should be taken when tacking questions of conservation within the development field. As we move towards a future characterized by technology and disposable materials, efficient SWM is crucial. After all, how can we serve our fellow people if we do not first serve our planet?

I’d like to close with a useful little New England proverb related to waste management that I came across recently: “Use it up, wear it out, make it do, or do without!”

Karthik (volunteer) and Anjana (zoo educator) teach Croc Bank visitors about proper waste segregation on Earth Day.
Karthik (volunteer) and Anjana (zoo educator) teach Croc Bank visitors about proper waste segregation on Earth Day.


Croc Bank visitors enjoy a round of "SWM Jeopardy" on Earth Day.
Croc Bank visitors enjoy a round of “SWM Jeopardy” on Earth Day.

Works Cited:

“Tragedy of the Commons.” Investopedia. N.p., 23 Nov. 2015. Web. 15 July 2017.

“Littering and Dumping.” Environmental Science: Tragedy of the Commons. N.p., n.d. Web. 15 July 2017.

If you would like to learn more about Hand in Hand India’s work, please visit this link:

*Avan served as AIF Clinton Fellow in 2016-17 with the Croc Bank in Tamil Nadu. Read more about her project.

Avan will have the fantastic opportunity to work among over 2,000 beautiful reptiles and amphibians. Her placement lies at the intersection of her love for science and education, deep interest in development work, and lifelong love for animals. She aims to learn from the experts and be able to form a practical waste management strategy, supported by experimental results. Avan is excited to finally visit South India, meeting new people, tasting the cuisines, and indulging in the culture of the community where she will be staying. Prior to AIF, Avan has served as co-president of a student organization called SHARE, which sends unused, surplus medical supplies from local hospitals to under-supplied clinics abroad. She has also participated in the Critical Language Scholarship program to learn Hindi.

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