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Waste Warriors

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Written by: Lindsay Koser

In the bustling, picturesque landscapes of the Indian Himalayas, a dedicated group is battling against a formidable opponent: waste. For more than ten years, Waste Warriors has been at the forefront, leading efforts to bring about significant change that extends far beyond the pristine valleys and snow-capped peaks. With a surge in tourism over the last decade, the region has seen a sharp rise in waste generation, a trend that is expected to continue. Due to inadequate collection and processing systems, over 60% of this waste is either dumped or burned. In a candid conversation with Suraj Agarwal, a member of the Waste Warriors fundraising team, we delve deep into the heart of their mission and the challenges they face in their quest for a greener, cleaner future.

What is Waste Warriors? 

Suraj paints a vivid picture of Waste Warriors' multifaceted approach to waste management. "Waste Warriors is a nonprofit organization that has been around for 11 years," he begins. "We build end-to-end waste management systems specifically in the Indian Himalayan region." From behavior change interventions to setting up waste processing facilities and engaging local communities, Waste Warriors leaves no stone unturned in their mission to tackle the waste crisis at its core. Since its inception, Waste Warriors has collected almost 6,000 metric tons of waste, engaged with over 160,000 people, and employed over 700 workers.
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Bhavna Sharma, Waste Warrior, raising awareness on sustainable menstrual hygiene measures among women from high-altitude mountainous communities in Govind Wildlife Sanctuary, Uttarkashi. Waste Warriors is hard at work in this remote snow leopard conservation zone, spreading awareness within the community on waste management to protect the ecosystem. Despite a lack of electricity, education systems, transportation, and roads, the locals in this area are becoming more and more aware of climate change and waste management thanks to Waste Warriors.

The Role of Waste in Climate Change
 
While waste often takes a backseat in global climate discussions, Suraj highlights its significant impact on both local communities and the planet at large. "Waste contributes 3% to carbon emissions and 20% to global methane emissions," he explains. Burning waste releases dioxins and furans into the atmosphere, these are some of the most toxic and carcinogenic chemicals known to scientists. In addition, microplastics and nano-plastics are polluting the air, water, and soil. Waste burning also releases black carbon, a significant source of pollutants, leading to the faster melting of the Himalayan glaciers and thereby reinforcing anthropogenic climate change.

"But the impact it has on local communities is much, much higher." Suraj shares a poignant example of a village near Dharamshala, where waste pollution not only affects the environment but also jeopardizes the livelihoods and well-being of its residents earning it the name “trash village.”
 

Challenges on the Frontlines

Driving behavior change and securing funding are among the myriad challenges Waste Warriors grapples with daily. "It's very easy for people to fall back on their bad habits of mixing waste or dumping it," Suraj acknowledges. " this requires continuous effort and conviction to keep them on the right track, to nudge them segregate waste at source." Limited resources and the inherently non-profitable nature of waste management further compound their struggles. Yet, despite these hurdles, Waste Warriors remains undeterred in their mission to generate lasting change.

Raj, our youth entrepreneur, was once an informal waste work; now runs an MRF with Waste Warriors in Dharamshala.

Raj, a youth entrepreneur, was once involved in informal waste work and now runs an MRF with Waste Warriors in Dharamshala.

Waste Warriors cleaning ecosensitive areas in Dharamshalaa

Waste Warriors cleaning ecosensitive areas in Dharamshala.

Exciting Initiatives on the Horizon

"We're in a very transitionary phase," Suraj reveals with palpable excitement. "We want to build local community-led sustainable models by identifying and working with local entrepreneurs to set up waste collection facilities and drive behavior change campaigns." This innovative approach holds the promise of long-term sustainability and resilience—a vision Waste Warriors has long championed.

Impact of the Keeling Curve Prize
Reflecting on their 2023 Keeling Curve Prize win, Suraj notes the invaluable support and credibility it brought to Waste Warriors. "The $50,000 prize money strengthened the backbone of the organization," he explains. "We could invest in capacity-building, research, monitoring, and evaluation, bridging crucial gaps in our operations."

This recognition has not only elevated their profile but also opened doors to further opportunities for growth and impact.In the fight against climate change, Waste Warriors stand as a beacon of hope, inspiring communities and catalyzing action one waste-free initiative at a time. As Suraj aptly summarizes, "We're not just managing waste—we're transforming communities and paving the way for a brighter, cleaner future."

 

To learn more about Waste Warriors and to support their work, visit their website, LinkedIn, or Instagram.

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Paryavaran Sakhi, a women-led local entrepreneurship model.

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