Best of the waste

Greenpeace’s campaign is making students aware of waste management, global warming and deforestation, writes Gitanjali Sharma

Patrick Kuemmel with students of Vivek High School at the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary Park
Go-green goal: Patrick Kuemmel with students of Vivek High School at the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary Park. — Photo by Pradeep Tewari

"I want to plant a peepal tree in the open space near my house," says Ankita, a student of St Peter’s School, Chandigarh. "For wooden furniture, we must cut down only old trees which give us less oxygen," parrots her classmate Shivika. "Now I think twice before throwing litter," chimes Nazuk, a Class VII student of Vivek High school, Chandigarh. Her schoolmate Harveen animatedly adds, "Different waste material should be thrown into different bins."

These enthusiastic affirmations come thanks to the first-of-its-kind-in-the-country eco and waste management drive launched by Greenpeace in schools of the city.

About a month ago, however, when the campaign was launched, this internationally acclaimed body had the target group — 10 to 17-year-olds — on the defensive. The students had little to say about their contribution to save the planet.

"It is so easy to pass the buck when it comes to taking responsibility about environment protection," says 22-year-old Patrick Kuemmel from Fulda, Germany, who came to the city as part of AIESEC’s (International Association of Students in Economics and Business Management) student-exchange programme to kick off this campaign for Greenpeace.

During his 30-day awareness schedule that included a series of lectures to students on waste management, global warming, waste recycling, deforestation, Kuemmel, a student of MBA who wants to take up parallel studies in biology, gathered some insightful observations. Most students believed they could shield the environment by "planting trees" and by "not using plastic bags" but they were not sure how could they set out to achieve this. Interestingly, the students felt that the environment could be improved by educating villagers and those living in slums, little realising that plastic bags are used more by city dwellers. The juniors, conveniently, also supposed that they could do something for the environment "when they grew up."

After considering a number of government schools for the outreach programme, Kuemmel zeroed in on Vivek High School and St Peter’s School, which he found were receptive to the idea of educating students about environment issues. Vivek High School, according to its Principal P.K. Singh, not only has an active eco club that was declared the best in North India this year but also boasts of a paper recycling plant and vermicomposting and rainwater harvesting facility.

Kuemmel found that though Vivek High School had different coloured bins for different waste material, students were either careless about throwing the waste in the prescribed bins or were just not aware about what to throw in which bin. "It is important not only to have the bins labelled for dumping plastic, paper, food stuff or other waste but also to constantly reinforce the objective in the minds of children."

Kuemmel advocated small steps to reduce plastic pollution. "Each time I bought a couple of bananas here, the fruit seller would offer me a polythene bag, which I would refuse. We all can do our bit by carrying our own shopping bags to the market."

Since 80 per cent of the household waste is biodegradable, Kuemmel says, it is essential to segregate it at the source. Plastic when burnt releases poisonous dioxins. When garbage is merely dumped in landfill sites, the toxic leachate travels down to fields, plants, animals and, finally, to human beings.

Kuemmel made the students visit the Sukhna Wildlife Sanctuary Park to give them a glimpse of forests, soil conservation and wildlife.

Parminder Duggal, in charge of Vivek High School’s Eco Club, found the Greenpeace project to be an eye-opener. Kuemmel collected 86 kg of garbage from the school bins in just two days. The collection surprisingly included 137 half-used pencils, erasers, usable paper and lots of aluminium foil. Kuemmel dissuaded students from using foil to wrap chapattis or paranthas, as harmful chemicals present in it are absorbed by the body while eating.

Anand Khurana, a teacher in St Peter’s School, too, was impressed by the interest taken by the students in Kuemmel’s workshop. The students excitedly undertook the three-and-a-half-km walk at the Sukhna sanctuary and came up with innovative drawings to depict the effects of deforestation and the harm being caused to the ozone layer.

"Both individual as well as societal efforts are required to manage waste and ultimately attain the "zero waste plan," points out Manish Kumar, Direct-Dialogue Coordinator of the Chandigarh unit of Greenpeace. Guided by the Greenpeace belief that "the earth is not left to us by our parents but has been lent to us by our children for safekeeping", their unit would attempt to reach out to all schools in the city. Kuemmel has now been succeeded by 26-year-old Hubert from the Czech Republic to spread the "stay-green" message in Chandigarh.

Kuemmel may have attained his objective of lighting the first straws of the bushfire of environment awareness but how far the flame will spread will depend on whether the Ankitas and Harveens actually go ahead and plant trees and continue to dispose waste judiciously.