OPINION LEADER OF THE MONTH
Ranjith Kharvel Annepu

In each of our monthly newsletters, we would like to give the opportunity to one blogger, analyst, journalist or other opinion leader to share his or her thoughts on waste management related topics. Each of them, will also be invited at our World Congress to enter the debate.

This month, we have invited Ranjith Kharvel Annepu as our guest. Ranjith is a Co-Founder of be Waste Wise. He worked as a consultant for the World Bank and advised Sustainable WasteResources International on solid waste management. Annepu is also the India Coordinator for Columbia University’s Global Waste-to-Energy Research and Technology (WTERT) Council. He holds a Master’s degree in Earth and Environmental Engineering from Columbia University and a Bachelor’s degree in Chemical Engineering. He wrote at blog.wtert.org and maintained swmindia.blogspot.com.

Communicating about waste to create an engaged global community

Inaccessible Expertise

In 2013, I was at World Bank's Headquarters in Washington, D.C. to attend a forum on waste management. That day, in a single room, I was surrounded by so many world class experts that I felt I was in a black hole of waste management expertise. People in that room had worked worldwide and had invaluable understanding about issues faced by communities, cities, and national governments and also knowledge about solutions. Such densely concentrated spaces and events do achieve their goals of disseminating expertise, encouraging debate and discussions.

During the months leading to the forum, I met numerous people in India and Ghana as a researcher and a consultant in waste management. Most of them had questions when answered would help them make better decisions - such as:

  • How do I help my community while making profit out of waste?
  • What kind of opportunities do entrepreneurs have?
  • What policy changes will help the industry?
  • How to improve waste collection in my city?
  • Our organization wants to campaign about banning plastics, what do you think about it?
  • Are bio-plastics a solution to garbage patches and should I buy them?
  • Are food waste disposal units better than composting in my city?

I could answer only some of those questions, but I knew there are people who could answer all the other questions.

We talk about waste being a global challenge with local solutions, but our efforts in disseminating solutions do not reflect that. They are inadequate. Poor and inadequate information is widely available through short blog posts, no pay-wall websites, memes and infographics on social media. Such information is easily consumed by the public and communicated passionately. However, knowledge about waste solutions is only available in lengthy PDFs, expensive and time consuming conferences and behind pay walls. The number of waste professionals who communicate regularly about solutions can be counted on fingers. When a project fails due to inadequate information, we incur health and environmental damage, as well as economic and political costs. More importantly, we incur the opportunity cost to create change.

I organized and helped organize many conferences in the U.S and India, and wrote a report, which was nearly 200 pages long. Those documents and events are very important for a diligent researcher or a waste consultant. However, not all decisions are made by us. They are made by a larger community of people - policy makers, government officials, businesses, and the public - who do not always have enough time or resources to study long reports or attend quality conferences. A few never learn about waste until it becomes a priority in their community.

An Engaged Global Community for Waste

We have to complement the knowledge in reports and conferences with shorter, easily accessible and more engaging formats of knowledge dissemination. We have to do this consistently in order to create waste-wise communities and individuals who will recognize the importance of waste management and will be aware of their options. Change towards sustainable local solutions cannot happen without the involvement of this wider community.

When my colleagues and I began bringing together leading-edge professionals to engage with the wider community, we realized that there was no community. We do not have a global waste community because we are fragmented, regionally and sectorally. We have only one functioning global organization, one global magazine, and zero global companies. We are divided into composters/bio guys, landfillers, waste to energy guys, anti waste to energy guys, recyclers/zero-wasters, social mitigators, etc. This means that there isn't much incentive to address waste management at a global scale. For us, this meant we had to simultaneously build a global community which engaged people around all types of waste solutions.

Engaged communities enhance the process of learning by providing opportunities for discussion and debate, as opposed to a person learning in isolation. Also, communities outlast individuals. Similarly, knowledge gained by communities outlast individual expertise and can lead to long term change. Such learning and long term change will indeed provide us with the most efficient way to address the global waste challenge.

Alchemy and Engaged Communities

Waste professionals are modern day alchemists. Alchemists tried turning base metals into gold and other precious metals, giving rise to today’s Chemistry. Waste managers are not just trying to, but are successful in turning “waste” into resources.

We should communicate about waste management as a new global challenge and also as a sector which has been providing solutions for decades. We have to communicate that we have the capability to continue doing so. We have to write and talk about how each of us, our organizations and businesses are improving human wellbeing worldwide. This will bring deserved recognition from the wider community and make the industry a high priority for bright young women and men who want to make a difference in the world as part of their jobs. It will also increase the availability of financing for waste management globally.

Communicating about waste and creating an engaged global community is possible. Over the last fifteen months, my colleagues and I have successfully engaged our growing community of waste professionals and the public in finding the most important issues that need discussion. Hundreds watched our online panels and participated as panelists and audience. Even though we are new, in just about an year, we could amplify 35 hours of time from our panelists into more than 1,000 hours of waste education. Imagine the untapped potential for waste education that organizations with existing networks of audience can create. Next year, with more support, we hope to further improve engagement in our global community, expand it, and increase avenues to communicate about waste.

Start Communicating About Waste

We are a community that has always been willing to share. But, to efficiently address our global waste challenge, we should make better use of today's tools. We have to complement existing methods of knowledge dissemination with easily accessible and more engaging content. We have to create an engaged global community for waste. And, we have to start communicating more about waste.

If you want to start communicating, the best place to start would be a simple blog. Information that can be shared on blogs ranges from opinion pieces, constant updates on projects, elucidated technical concepts, reports, updated information about your research and activities, detailed answers to questions, etc. If you already blog about waste, ISWA-2015 is looking for you. You can also blog with be Waste Wise. We plan to publish 30 articles from top influencers in waste management on the subject of "communicating waste" in 2015.

Below are responses from industry professionals to why and how we can communicate about waste better. You can join the conversation too. Tell us your reasons for communicating about waste. How do you think we can do it better? Comment below or tweet to @bewastewise and @ISWA2015.

Mike Webster: (We should communicate about waste) because societies live or die through their relationship with resources. (There are) lots of new technologies, lot of people doing interesting things but in silos. There is plenty to share and learn.

Edward Humes: (We should communicate about waste because) most (people) in US have no idea how much they waste or its impact. (The waste) industry struggles to tell and understand the story of a hard yet inevitable change: waste management to resource management. (EcoMENA responded that it is the same case in the Middle East and North Africa region).

Mike Tregent: (We) need the public to better understand waste and resources demanding the best option on local conditions, which requires information and transparency.

Adam Read: (We should communicate about waste) because people don't understand the costs incurred! (I blog consistently about waste) because I have something to say and don't mind sharing my opinion and encouraging debate.

Maxine Perella:(We should communicate about waste) because our relationship with it sucks. We can do this by sexing it up and keeping it creative. We can learn from brand leaders like Nike, who give it a consumer appeal.

Ad Lansink: Not only (should we communicate about waste) more but also (provide) better and transparent information.

I would like to thank Adam Read and Mike Tregent for their suggestions which improved the article.

Article outline

  1. Black holes of expertise
  2. Astounding need for knowledge and expertise
  3. Information about solutions is not easily accessible
  4. Decisions are made by the wider community
  5. We have to complement existing methods of dissemination
  6. There is no global waste community
  7. Communities outlast individuals
  8. Waste managers are modern day Alchemists
  9. What should we communicate?
  10. It is possible
  11. How to start communication