Managing waste of 45,000 people
Sanghamitra Nidhi Dutta
Very rarely do we give a thought about the bottle, or that crumpled piece of paper we just tossed into the (sometimes labelled, sometimes not) bin.
As a waste manager for the Indigenous Terra Madre, 2015 (3rd to 7th November, 2015), I can say that there is, indeed, a lot that goes beyond the bin.
The first three days of the event took place at the Convocation Hall of North East Hill University (NEHU). About 120 bins were placed on-site, labelled Biodegradable and Non-biodegrable. They, however failed to serve their purpose initially as their signs were often covered up by oblivious staff while lining with black garbage bags. We managed to remedy that by ensuring that the signs were visible, as well as posting extra signs above the bins, at eye level, categorized into Organic Waste and Inorganics, which was further diverged into Plastic Bottles Only, and Miscellaneous Dry Waste (Plastic bottles excluded).
The kitchen and catering staff for the delegate dining hall were duly informed about the disposal arrangements including the segregation of the waste and were made aware of the compost pit (courtesy of Bethany Society, who also supplied us with Garbage2Gold powder for speeding up the composting process) on the grounds for the organic waste. The leftover food from the hall was collected by a third agency, to be used as feed for livestock.
The dry, inorganic waste from around the venue was accumulated at one area, which would be regularly picked up by the Shillong Municipal Board. Upon emptying of the incoming bins, the waste would immediately be separated into separate corners, assigned for plastic bottles (which made up the biggest chunk of the total dry waste amount, as each individual bottle was of a mere 300ml capacity), paper waste, cardboard and assorted metallic waste.
The execution at NEHU was fairly organized and uncomplicated, with waste being properly disposed of.
The actual food festival took place in Mawphlang, on the 7th of November. Now, managing waste for a food festival is no mean feat, but I (or my teammates, for that matter) certainly wasn’t expecting what awaited us at the site on the day before the main event.
The ideal dimensions for a compost pit is ten feet in length, three feet in width and two feet in depth. Despite explicit instructions for at least three pits of the aforementioned dimensions, what greeted us in Mawphlang was a perfectly cubical pit, eight feet cubed, with a layer of water on the bottom. It was neither safe nor feasible as a composting pit. Upon summoning the Event Manager on to the site, he swore in incredulity, wondering if it was supposed to be a compost pit or a water tank. Engaging workers, we got the one third of the depth of the pit filled manually overnight.
The stalls were supplied with biodegradable plates made of bark, and forks, spoons and cups made of corn starch. Upon a survey of the thirty six stalls, it was found that none of them were using inorganic materials for serving food. A couple of stalls even took it step further and opted for leaves for plates and leaf spines as spoons.
The central challenge in Mawphlang was the sheer number of people. We had at least, if not more, forty thousand people. That’s roughly sixty to eighty thousand plates, from the stall area alone. The ITM Kitchen and the Taste Workshop in the Heritage Village were also having a busy with people coming in constantly. We were short on housekeeping staff as well as the number of bins that filled up repeatedly in a short periods of time. The signs we put up above every single bin failed, as the crowd was so large, no one probably had the patience or the sight to take notice, leading to incoming bags of mixed waste, which had to be separated by (gloved) hand. This difficult task was taken on by the team as well as the local boys hired for the day, in turns.
The now-six feet deep pit filled up rapidly, with about a quarter of it left, and about three hours of the event still left. Keeping our fingers crossed and hearts strong, we carried on. The flow gradually thinned, and after sundown, it was no longer possible to continue. We sprinkled G2G dust after every two-three feet.
7th November was coming to an end. And when the party ends, the real work begins.
We had to return on the 8th for the final wrap up. The kitchen area of the stalls had left behind huge amounts of organic waste which had to be carried down to the compost pit and ensure there were no (or at least, minimal) inorganic waste mixed in the pile.
It went into the 9th, when the SMB turned up in the morning to collect the dry (well, not so dry; after a point, it’s simply impossible to separate anymore) waste. The Pit was closed up with a layer of soil, and a fence put around it to dissuade people from dumping more waste on top, with a sign declaring the presence of fertilizer, which, according to the experts from Bethany Society, would be ready for use in approximately three months.
The Event Manager, who I’d come to befriend after discovering we shared a birthday, asked me if I had any parting words for him before they went back to Mumbai. I smiled.
“Never, ever manage waste for a food festival.”