Core Members of Team Zero Waste
A mountain of disposable waste has become a norm for large scale gatherings and events, with IIT Bombay being no exception. Whether it is the half marathon, Mood Indigo, Techfest or any other big event, heaps of waste especially that of disposable plastic bottles has become a usual sight. Serious rethinking and efforts are needed to conduct such mass gatherings in an environmentally sustainable manner. One such effort was made by Team Zero Waste during the IIT Bombay Half Marathon, which is annually held on the campus in October.
Team Zero Waste, is a student organisation for students from various programmes and disciplines at IIT. It aims to improve the management of waste at IIT Bombay and to reduce the amount of waste that is sent to the Kanjurmarg landfill.
A Shift from Plastic to Clay
Around 4,000 people from within and outside the campus participate in the IIT Bombay Half Marathon each year. Last year, around 13,000 PET bottles were used to quench the thirst of the runners. This year, Team Zero Waste, led by Senior Project Managers Anupriya Aggarwal and Alok Kumar Gupta, decided to replace the plastic bottles with a plastic-free substitute.
Paper cups, a seemingly obvious alternative, were ruled out as they are practically and economically hard to recycle due to a thin plastic film lining the inside to make it waterproof. The Zero Waste group zeroed in on earthen cups after considering other plastic-free options. Care was also taken to find local vendors to reduce the carbon footprint of transportation and delivery. Asians Tiger, a group of artisans, offered to make 13,000 kulhads (baked clay glasses) as an alternative to plastic bottles.
Providing water from kulhads involved some logistic challenges. A team of 100 volunteers comprising students, faculty members and residents participated in transportation, cleaning, filling and post-use segregation of the kulhads. Steel jars were used for filling the kulhads. Ten water stations were set up all along the route to ensure that the runners get a regular supply of water. Dedicated volunteers were placed at the water stations from 4 am till the end of the half-marathon.
“Taking inspiration from the volunteers, some runners went a step ahead and decided to pour the water directly into their mouths (a practice common in India) so that it can be used multiple times by refilling.”
A small empty PET bottle of 250ml weighs approximately 12g. If discarded in the usual way, 13,000 PET bottles would have generated approximately 12g x 13,000 = 156kg of plastic waste, which was avoided this year. Further, the carbon footprint of PET is about 6kg of CO² per kilogram of plastic. So, a plastic-free half marathon led to a reduction of 936kg of CO² emissions.
Moreover, plastic water bottles have an unexpectedly large water footprint. According to FreshWater Watch, plastic bottles take about three times as much water to produce than they can actually hold. So, the water footprint of 13,000 PET bottles would have been around 10,000L. Compared to that, the water footprint of kulhads was significantly lower, which is estimated to be 3,500L, including making and washing. An attempt was made to think through the entire lifecycle of the product used to replace the plastic bottles. To avoid sending the used kulhads to a landfill, they were collected and sent to Prof Bakul Rao’s lab at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas, IIT Bombay, to be used in a wastewater treatment project.
The response to the first half-marathon in India that was free of plastic bottles has been overwhelmingly positive. Dr. Ankita Asthana, the marketing head of Fitizen, said: “This marathon would be an inspiration to conduct all other marathons in a plastic-free manner.” Participants also praised the uniqueness of the initiative and shared their views about the replacement of plastic with kulhads. Many participants remarked that this was the first marathon with such an initiative and they were glad to be a part of it. Several participants took their used kulhads home as souvenirs. Several others responded positively to the appeal by Team Zero Waste by bringing their own reusable water bottles. One of the participants, a regular marathon runner who has participated in 70 marathons, remarked: “It is the first time I have actually seen such an initiative where the message of going plastic-free is not just limited to slogans and banners, but has been actually implemented in practice.”
In addition to the tangible reduction of carbon and water footprint due to this initiative, there were many other benefits that were not easily measurable — such as the effect of not releasing a portion of plastic into the environment (around 90 percent of plastics are never recycled); the impact of supporting local industries that provide sustainable products; the social impact of collectively practising waste segregation on a community level. The team provided segregated-at-source material — 15kg of extraneous plastic, 4kg aluminum cans and 3kg of cardboard — to sanitation workers of Stree Mukti Sangathan, who otherwise would have had to manually segregate this from mixed waste.
For the residents of IITB campus, a noticeable change this year was the absence of littered plastic bottles at the end of the event. A resident commented that “instead of complaining that such large-scale events make the campus dirty, the campus community came together as one to act on keeping it clean.”
Team Zero Waste is working with the institute authorities and the student community, with mentorship from the Alumni to work towards organizing large-scale events, conferences, talks, seminars and other events in a sustainable manner.
We also urge all the readers to organise their events, with sustainability at the core. Replacing plastic bottles with Kulhads is one of the ways to reduce the environmental impact of mass gatherings. There can be many such steps which can help conduct these events in an eco-friendly manner such as using areca leaf utensils, using washable steel utensils instead of paper cups and paper straws, carrying handkerchiefs rather than tissue papers, using only eco-friendly decorative items and donating the leftover food to an NGO.
In conclusion, we need to establish a culture of organising huge events without extravagance. We need to find ways to reduce consumption and reuse what we already have. Sustainability is not a favor you are doing on the environment or anyone else. In the time when we are witnessing large scale environmental destruction and pollution of community resources, it is the only option we have. We cannot and we shouldn’t pollute the community resources, because the after-effects will be faced by all species. We cannot be so unfair to our fellow humans, especially to those who lie at the fringes of our communities. Environmental Sustainability is just a way of being responsible for what you do, what you buy and what you create.
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