On Getting Wasted
Almost never do we touch our own waste. Once we make something into waste, it is as if it is not ours to think about. The act is not one of rejecting the thing itself, but of rejecting our responsibility for it. With this expulsion, we push processes like waste disposal that constitute a large part of our act of consumption into invisibility. I began this simply as a project to bring these processes into awareness, but it became instead a striking realisation of the role that this invisibility plays in our social relations at Ashoka.
As a child, I was told not to waste my food because “there are children starving on the streets.” It always struck me as odd – I used to wonder why the extra food cooked at home couldn't be used to feed these children. It is a bizarre contradiction that still confuses me. We live in a country in which starvation and malnutrition is a serious issue, but the problem of food waste is also a growing one. The food waste issue points to the glaring imbalance between the amount of resources we extract to put into production, and the amount we actually put to use — it is an economic and an environmental problem. This is, of course, only in addition to the immense environmental impact caused by improper disposal and the production of greenhouse gases by food waste.
The food waste at Ashoka’s mess is dealt with in a systematic manner. In a conversation with Yogesh Paneru, the supervisor of VOW, I found out that the staff keep detailed registers of the daily amount of food waste created per meal. They keep separate records of ‘plate waste,’ the waste that gets collected in the bussing station, and of food that gets made but left over after the mess closes, which is considerably less. It is the plate waste that we are shown statistics of on the boards in the mess. The food is measured after segregating wet waste from dry waste, which is collected in large containers and then weighed per meal by the staff and the supervisor. The leftover usable food from after the mess closes is first distributed to the staff and often used for dog feeding. The remnants, along with the plate waste, are collected by a vendor who uses it in a pig farm in Sonipat. The waste created during the making of the food, such as cuttings and peels, are used for compost in Ashoka itself.
Through posters, daily statistics, and occasional reminders in emails, we are reminded of the food waste problem in the mess. Conversing with the Residence Hall 2 didis provided me with an insight into the food waste issue in the residence halls as well. Apart from the food that is left to spoil in the fridges, the didis often find eatable food in the dustbins as well — full sandwiches and uneaten fruit were examples they gave. This food that is so unnecessarily discarded, they suggested, can be easily distributed to, say, children outside campus or anyone who can use it. Perhaps the issue is that of organisation, simply a lack of a system in which edible food can end up being, well, eaten. This gives us an idea of the amount of waste we create, although it doesn’t account for the waste created at the different outlets on campus.
It comes back to the idea that discarding something is a transferral of responsibility — an out-of-sight, out-of-mind mindset by which a big part of our consumption is displaced into sightlessness from ourselves. But that we make the problem of waste invisible as soon as a thing becomes waste is only a symptom of the larger problem we are invisibilizing: that our waste is someone else’s work. When we reject our waste, often in disgust, to retain our (symbolic) hygiene, we are only displacing who has to deal with that waste. I couldn’t help but notice that it is women who are predominantly assigned work in the bussing station. Perhaps this is relevant in the context of the idea that waste-related work in our country is not only influenced by caste and class but is also highly gendered work.
The discussion of waste — or rather the lack of discussion and involvement regarding it — introduces a purity-pollution attitude. If our unwillingness to discuss the place of waste at Ashoka is also an unwillingness to confront the caste-class separation present in the very system of our consumption, is it simply waste we are discarding, or the very conversation surrounding it?