Delhi’s waste problem: How two environmentally-conscious children are trying to tackle it

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Updated: February 10, 2019 7:18 AM

The environmentally-conscious brothers, however, didn’t just stop there. Moved by the Ghazipur landfill crisis, they decided to visit the site to gauge the seriousness of the situation.

A session on waste management being conducted by brothers Vihaan and Nav Agarwal in Delhi for their NGO OneStepGreener

It all started in September 2017 when east Delhi’s Ghazipur landfill collapsed because of heavy rain, causing the death of two people. Fourteen-year-old Vihaan Agarwal, who has asthmatic tendencies, remembers feeling very perturbed with the news. “I realised that there is a huge trash problem in India,” says the Delhi-based student, adding, “I did some research and found that around 30% of Delhi’s air pollution is directly contributed by waste.”

This fact, coupled with his health issues, made the teenager realise the importance of responsible waste disposal. He teamed up with his younger brother, 11-year-old Nav, and together they decided to start from home. “We didn’t want our home to produce any trash that would impact the environment in a negative way, so we started segregating it and would then get it recycled,” says Vihaan, adding that they even spoke to their neighbours about the issue, urging them to join in as well.

The environmentally-conscious brothers, however, didn’t just stop there. Moved by the Ghazipur landfill crisis, they decided to visit the site to gauge the seriousness of the situation. What they found there was tonnes and tonnes of waste, finding it difficult to breathe in the area because of the high pollution. One visit led to another and, after many months of studying and observing the landfill, they realised that what the city needed was an urgent sustainable breakthrough to manage its colossal waste problem. They shared their findings with like-minded people—fellow students, colony residents, etc—and started getting them onboard their cause through WhatsApp groups.

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In February 2018, their NGO OneStepGreener was born. The NGO, which was funded by their parents initially—their father works at a private job, while the mother is a homemaker—is aimed at educating and inspiring people to segregate, compost and recycle waste. Operational in three areas of Delhi as of now—Anand Niketan, Vasant Vihar and Shanti Niketan—the NGO offers waste pickup services to anybody who wishes to dispose of waste responsibly. After a household has done its segregation, a day is planned for the pickup. The waste is collected from the doorstep, weighed and paid for, and then taken to the recycling start-up Scrapped (with which OneStepGreener has a tie-up) for reprocessing. “You have to keep four bags in your house: one for hazardous waste; one for compostable and wet waste; one for cardboard, paper, plastic, etc; and one for anything that can break, for example, glass,” explains Vihaan, adding that they usually organise eight pickups a month.

And if you get confused, there is help at hand. “We have a chart, which explains segregation pictorially. The chart is designed in both Hindi and English,” says Nav. They also retail waste-related products via their website such as boxes and bags to dispose trash in, as well as waste-specific stickers (in Hindi and English) that can be affixed on trash bins to better facilitate waste segregation—all their products cost under Rs 200 and are made of recyclable materials. Till now, they have recycled over 6,500 kg paper, 2,800 kg cardboard, 600 kg metal, over 1,280 kg plastic and 1,400 kg glass.

A viable concern that comes to one’s mind, however, is that the brothers’ work can jeopardise the livelihood of the local kabadiwalla. Refuting the concern, Nav says, “A lot of people might think that the kabadiwalla’s job will get redundant because of us, but Scrapped, the recycling start-up that we have tied up with, in fact, employs these people.”

Another challenge they faced during the initial days of their initiative was not being taken seriously by adults. “Initially, people didn’t take us seriously,” recalls Nav. “But we conducted many talks, training sessions, etc, in residential communities, fairs and at various corporate offices. And that helped in spreading awareness.”

Vihaan, who was a keynote speaker at Climate Jamboree (an initiative that aims to engage and empower youth to build a sustainable future) in November in Delhi also conducted sessions at various schools. “We gave talks at many schools like American Embassy School, etc. We were told to keep it short because the attention span of children is less, but we got a lot of sign-ups after that,” beams Vihaan.

Today, they have several volunteers onboard, including school students, yoga teachers and wellness coaches—volunteers assist with pickups, fundraising, etc. They also have designated ‘colony heads’ working in tandem with OneStepGreener. “A colony head communicates with us and lets us know when they require a pickup of their locality’s trash… We have individual colony heads to handle logistics in their respective colonies,” explains Vihaan.

For now, they are operational only in parts of south Delhi as the brothers live there, but there are plans to diversify in the future, with a focus on not just residential colonies, but apartment complexes and societies as well. The brothers have even received requests from other cities such as Gwalior; a village in Rajasthan has approached them as well.

NGOs, however, need money to sustain themselves and OneStepGreener is no exception. Initially, their parents put in some money and then the brothers started raising money from the talks and sessions they conducted through donations, etc. “Around 90% of the money put in the NGO has been raised by us. We also take donations via Paytm transfers,” says Vihaan, adding that they are currently looking for funding. For that purpose, in fact, the brothers have now approached many corporates.

When asked if all this work is hampering their studies, Vihaan, who is interestingly called the kudawala of his class, says, “Our parents are very strict about our studies. Education is important and can take you far in life, but, at the same time, helping people will take you farther… That’s the philosophy we work under.”

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