“Auroville does not have little elves and fairies who clean up after us, but a few groups who are dedicated to keeping Auroville and its surrounding areas free of litter.” – AV Cleanup.
Mounting piles of garbage at Auroville's landfill site
Once a week, fortnight, or month, almost every Auroville community gets a welcome visitor – a little yellow-white van with its crew of two that pulls up by the garbage bins and sets about emptying them. The van belongs to Eco Service, Auroville's trash-picking, garbage-sorting, and land-filling service that attempts to help the township deal responsibly with its waste.
“It is not a job many Aurovilians want to do,” says Gillian who for over two decades has been peripherally involved with managing trash in Kuyilapalayam village. “I joined Jayamoorthy in July 2008. Eco Service at this time was running in a superficial way in that the waste collectors didn't really care whether the garbage was collected or not from the communities. They were more driven by money, and would only go to places where they knew there was recyclables to be found. They had no overheads as it was a family-run business. The waste was only partially segregated, and that created a large volume to be disposed of at the landfill. The time had come for all this to change. We had become involved with SOMA [Solid waste Management in Auroville] and working together with them gave us the impetus to take the plunge.
“We decided it was time to ‘let-go' of our collectors. This resulted in threats of violence against us, and our sorting sheds were forcibly locked-up. Waste collection got disrupted and the community suffered. The situation dragged on for months until the Working Committee became involved and the issue got resolved.
“Now all that is behind us, and we are putting a more efficient and conscious system in place,” says Gillian. “Besides the three Aurovilians involved, the new Eco Service team is made up of a young graduate from Pondicherry University with a background in solid waste management who supervises the workers, a team of six women who sort the waste, and a driver who operates our van.”
Eco Service was started in the mid-eighties by Stephano who tried to tackle the problem of waste being indiscriminately dumped into the canyons or being burnt.
“From the beginning,” says Gillian, “the intention of Eco Service was to segregate the recyclable waste which had a market value from the non-recyclables and hazardous materials, and in this way reduce the residual waste reaching the landfill site. The communities would sell their recyclable waste – paper, plastic, glass and metal – to Eco Service and pay for the disposal of the non-recyclables. Eco Service's role was to ensure that things ran smoothly, offer a space for sorting the waste, and store hazardous material such as used batteries.”
“But things began to break down because the amount of waste being generated became enormous,” says Gillian. “The community was growing and Auroville began receiving more guests and visitors. The contractors could not keep up. Waste from Auroville was ending up in the village dumpsites, and sometimes in the canyons. It was again being burnt to make it quickly disappear. Finally, it was noticed that only about 10% of the waste was getting recycled instead of the projected 70%; the rest was all heading for the landfill.”
Not many people know that Auroville has its own landfill – a 6-acre plot behind Auroannam off the Mailam Road . “The area is designated as ‘remote' waste land and has a low water table,” explains Gillian. “There we've excavated about twenty holes of 250 cubic metres each for burying the waste. With the previous collectors, we would landfill once a month but now it is more infrequent.
“Actually, our wish is that we avoid landfill as much as possible so the waste is sorted very carefully. With our new team we are finding new dealers who recycle many more of the items we find in the garbage. Ultimately our aim is to go beyond the landfill method and find systems that will process waste in a safe and dynamic way; like harvesting energy from the waste. There are many new discoveries being made now and we should apply them in Auroville.”
Eco Service deals with freeing Auroville from both visible and invisible pollution, but not all residents of Auroville participate. “Some, even some of our larger businesses, do not want to pay the fees,” says Gillian. “They prefer to sell-off the disposable waste and burn the non-disposable which is extremely polluting. Burning waste is a serious problem and we have to find a solution. One way to tackle this might be to build a community incinerator to international standards...”
Gillian believes that there is also a need to educate Aurovilians about waste disposal. “For example, we still find disposable diapers or organic food waste mixed with the regular garbage,” she says. “In my own community of Aurodam, there was once a family of cobras which had made their nest in the recycling area. This happened because someone had dumped pizza boxes with leftover food which attracted rats, which in turn attracted the cobras… It was the classic food chain!”
Apart from Eco Service, other groups are also active in the waste management scene in Auroville. SOMA which is less than six months old, not only organizes clean-ups, but conducts community-wide surveys, and disseminates information to the community on the do's and don'ts of waste disposal. “One can say they are the activism and educational wing,” says Gillian, “and they work in tandem with us. What I am most delighted with is that Auroville's second generation is taking up this work!
Another second-generation group is AV cleanup, a growing band of youth volunteers who for years have been gathering on Sunday mornings to rid the sides of the Auroille's roads and neighbourhoods of plastic bags and trash. Following their successful campaign, LIFE or ‘Litter Free' day, the group posted a pithy message on the News and Notes: ‘Auroville does not have little elves and fairies who clean up after us, but a few groups who are dedicated to keeping Auroville and its surrounding areas free of litter.'
And then there are the many Auroville units that work in environmentally-responsible ways, finding creative solutions to keep the environment clean – like Foodlink that packages its dry goods in biodegradable plastic; Upasana Design Studio with its Small Steps campaign, offering foldable cloth bags to replace throwaway plastic ones; Wellpaper that recycles newspapers into jewellery and functional objects; or more recently, an informal ‘cottage unit' operating out of Udavi School that puts to use all the styrofoam waste of the community [ see box].
Finally there are the Aurovilians; artists who work only with recycled objects; the anonymous residents who on their walks through Auroville's forests and centre, picking up the litter left behind by picnickers; or those ocean lovers who clean the beach of flotsam and trash.
Aurovilians, it seems are beginning to take their civic responsibility more seriously, willing to go the extra mile to make their community and environment clean.
All of the styrofoam waste that arrives in Auroville as packaging material gets recycled – thanks to Dorothee, an architect who believes in and practices ecological building techniques. “Styrofoam, which is extruded polystyrene foam, is non-biodegradable,” she says. It is believed that even after 1000 years, styrofoam does not break down.
But Dorothee has found an ingenious way to put the waste polymer to work, by creating lightweight panels of ‘styrofoam-embedded cement' which have good heat insulation properties.
The panels measuring 60 cms by 60cms by 2.5cms are made on-site at the Udavi School campus by a team of three workers. “Right now we are producing them for our own consumption,” says Dorothee referring to the construction and infrastructure expansion at the school. “We already have them functioning in three large spaces all located on the first floor: the future dormitory, and the new library and computer room.” She explains that the panels are placed directly beneath the pitched tile roof to prevent the heat from being conducted or radiated.
The smiling faces of the 8th graders returning from lunch on that hot afternoon and settling into their new ‘cool' classroom attests to this fact.