Lisa Bjerke ’13 spent her Watson year in waste piles, dumps, and composting bins on a Watson Fellowship to Germany, India, China, and Japan, seeking to understand how to “‘compost’ human attitudes as well as organic ‘waste’ to become resources for sustainability.” Here she writes about a day in her life in India.

I step out of the apartment building in Kolkata to investigate today’s “waste,” heading behind the building for my daily inspection of the little trash bin that serves as a communal waste management system for at least ten families. It is empty! The broken glass I placed in an old cement bag yesterday, the stacks of cardboard and trash from other apartments that were there last night, have been picked through and removed—all before six a.m.—by individuals from Kolkata’s complex and effective informal recycling sector. These informal recyclers—those who sort the waste for valuable materials; those who buy the paper, plastic, metal, and glass; and the transporters and middlemen—play one of the most significant roles in Kolkata’s solid waste management. Still, they are often called ragpickers or wastepickers, and their work generally goes unnoticed.

I walk out onto the street. Two women are carrying large bags into which they put the recyclable contents from the neighborhood’s discarded materials. They sort and collect, then carry what they can to the local recycling shop. By just placing it outside, my cardboard and glass have entered the Kolkata recycling stream. But the dedicated workers of this informal recycling sector are not seeking to be good environmental stewards: waste is their livelihood. What I consider 
waste they see as income.

Near the women, dogs and birds are engaging in their own urban recycling, opening plastic bags to get at the leftover food and other organic material for which there is no market. But the small plastic bags filled with rotting flowers discarded from the daily pujas, or home worship ceremonies, are not seen as food by the animals, so I open some of the bags, freeing the holy flowers to enter Mother Earth’s own recycling process: composting.

The pile on my street is a good sample of Kolkata’s visible waste. It is mainly organic, “wet” waste, wrapped and mixed with the “dry” waste (plastics, glass, packaging, and other unwanted items). Much of the dry waste has recycling value, but needs to be sorted by hand. As I watch the sorters, I am thankful for those who turn trash into resources, and overwhelmed by my questions: what makes this system function, what parameters are hidden within the network of solid waste management, what is it like to be an informal recycler?

The family of one young man I have befriended runs a recycling shop but does not want to take me there. His business—like the majority of recycling businesses—is considered a nuisance, and so it’s under constant threat of being removed by the police and local government. The businesses pay the police to avoid being harassed; a visit by an outsider could attract unwanted attention.

To solve the problem of waste, the city doesn’t engage with the informal sorting/recycling sector, but instead hires street sweepers. I accost the sweeper who works down the road from my house. He fills his cart with what has been refused by the recyclers after being discarded from residences during the last twenty-four hours. His home is a shed on the street corner; he stores his cart in the nearby market and is paid by the Kolkata Municipal Corporation to take its contents to that ward’s dumpsite, next to the market. Daily, a municipal truck picks up the pile and drives it to Dhapa, a part of Kolkata that is both a landfill and a residential area for those who make their living from the waste. Dhapa is situated within the East Kolkata Wetlands, designated a “wetland of international importance” under the 1971 international wetland treaty, known as the Ramsar Convention.

As I walk through my middle-class neighborhood, I pass the vegetable market and think about how local the food is. Forty percent of the vegetables sold in Kolkata are grown by farmers around the wetlands and Dhapa dumpsite, using the organic waste and sewage as fertilizer.

Heading home, I enter a park where women collect fallen branches and neatly stack them to sell as firewood and building materials. Men usually collect the leaves from around bushes and trees, just as we do at COA. I think about the human perception that leaves look scattered and messy, and how that perception makes us intervene and “manage” an already functioning system. In the park, the leaves are collected with other “trash” and made to disappear by burning. Removing nutrient-rich organic matter from the vegetated ground is absurd when you think about it.

Outside the park, too, I pass pile after pile of burning stuff, mainly leaves but also plastic and electronic cables. I try to understand this desire to burn things. It is more than just making “waste” disappear. Each fall at COA, the workers and workstudy students at Buildings and Grounds relish turning organic fiber into a huge bonfire. Throughout the world, there seems to be something about the heat and mesmerizing flames that lead us to prefer the fire’s carbon-related implications to recycling these fibers into soil.

Recently I visited the new compactors found in some of the more affluent wards. Here, municipal workers dump the contents of their carts into a massive, spotless compactor hole, without sorting. The paper and cardboard, plastic bottles and bags, leaves and food become one unified and contaminated square of less visible but organized and scientific-looking “progress.” The workers are proud of the efficient technology and are certain the squares get recycled, that fertilizers are made out of the liquid. I try not to look skeptical. What type of fertilizer can be made out of broken lamps, plastic bottles, and chicken bones?

To fully grasp the story of Kolkata’s waste management, I realize I need to visit Dhapa, the landfill where the waste ends up. Bureaucracy makes this difficult , but I manage to obtain a permit from Kolkata’s deputy engineer. It turns out that some of the waste from the city is actually being composted by a company operating next to the landfill, and fertilizers are being made and sold from the compacted, mixed waste of the city. This makes me wonder what makes some engage with compacting, others with combustion, and still others with composting and recycling?

My days in Kolkata are filled by meeting people whose lives center upon its waste, at every level—governmental officials and workers, citizens and groups seeking to make change, chance experiences. As I investigate these hidden functions I am continuously reevaluating my and others’ perceptions of “waste” and composting, indeed, composting within my mind the many conceptions of waste and resources: how do we value the things in our lives?