Green Warrior Poonam Bir Tells Us How Our Daily Dumps Can Feed Nature Via Her Artful Composters
- IWB Post
- October 11, 2017
There have been multiple predictions that the end of the Earth is near, but while they had been a no-show, the heaps of wastes polluting our lands are a siren of the approaching doomsday. The problem has already crossed alarming levels, that it is time for warriors to rise who can destroy the monstrous heaps that we created. And one such warrior is Poonam Bir Kasturi.
Poonam often wondered what drives an individual to live with the mentality that cleaning their own house is enough, that strewing their streets with waste is not something that should weigh their conscience with guilt.
Poonam took the mission of saving her environment in her own hands and thus in 2006 Daily Dump in Bangalore came into being, and since then she had been combating waste with her innovative home waste-composting products. In an interview with IWB, she takes us on her journey of making ‘Waste-free’ a forever nickname for the Earth.
The issue of waste management has been plaguing our nation for years. What inspired you to work towards finding its solution?
It is strange, but my first project at design school was about waste in a city. My Dad was a very proud Indian and he was also a designer; he would inspire me and my siblings to work for this great country, to work to solve immediate issues through design. He left a deep impression on me when he passed away in 1987. Growing up in such a family, and then being privileged enough to study at National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad (NID), did a lot to build a sense of purpose in me.
Teaching design also helped distill the values that I wanted to hold on to, and being a bit of a rebel turned into an urge to do something. I wanted to make sense of the mess that I, literally and metaphorically, see in and around me.
I must say I am already feeling inspired! So tell me how did Daily Dump come into being?
Daily Dump began as a culmination of the conversations I have had with many of my students at Srishti as well as with my peers over the years. The varied ideas informed and excited me – from systems theory, sustainable development, design methods, sacred geometries, craft development, Indira darshinis, the open source movement, micro-enterprise, facilitative processes and design – have all influenced my work at Daily Dump.
Before laying down the foundation of Daily Dump, what were you doing?
I graduated in Product Design in 1985 from the NID. After graduation, I worked in a small-scale manufacturing and then set up a craft-based design company called Industree with two other partners. After five years, I set up Play N Speak, a proprietorship, that made products for the home. I was also a founding faculty of Srishti School of Art, Design, and Technology in Bengaluru.
You certainly are an experienced entrepreneur. Tell me about the different innovative products that Daily Dump offers.
Our original innovation was the Kambha – a pillar that holds the business together by continuing to draw curious customers in. It is our primary composter, though now we have a number of other terracotta composters as well as plastic versions for those who want a lighter weight model. Over the years we expanded our designs to include various waste segregation sorting systems to make it easier for families to recycle organic matter. We also added leaf and puja composters to the mix.
Our community composter, the Aaga, helps keep tonnes of organic waste out of landfills without the use of electricity and many moving parts. Recently, we have crossed the 1,000 mark of this easy-to-use first of its kind composter. This product has won a German Award for its design.
Our most recent designs tackle e-waste – something that can be quite a scourge when added to landfills. So we have various products – one for batteries, one for tube lights, and one for light bulbs – that enable you to safely store these items until you’re ready to take them to the e-waste recycling unit nearest to you. Each of these products comes with fun little storybooks filled with activities so that the younger generation learns about the problems of e-waste and doesn’t repeat our mistakes.
You mentioned your puja composters, especially around festivals like Ganesh Chaturthi or Durga Puja, our water bodies are severely polluted due to a large number of idol immersions. Do you plan to address this source of pollution via your products as well?
Our main way of addressing puja waste has been through our two puja composters – the Rangoli and the Ganesha. This has helped to build consciousness around puja flowers so people see this as a resource, just as they do with their food waste.
The idols themselves are a large problem. It would be great to bite into that issue and see how design can help create an alternative and better way. I do think the mud and seed Ganesha is an ideal alternative and it’s great to see it is catching on.
How do you target such deep-rooted habits of people as negligence towards waste disposal and keeping their houses clean by polluting the environment?
Most urban Indians do not know that 60% of their dustbin is an organic waste. They don’t know that when this is sent to landfills, it comes back as poison on their plates and harms the health of their families, which is directly affected by the way they throw things away. So the challenge is to get people to understand that they can cultivate nutrition by composting instead of poison by landfilling.
Most urban Indians think that waste is beneath their dignity. They feel that the government must handle this and they equate waste with the uneducated. This is a very big mindset challenge to overcome. So we pay a lot of attention of what we say about waste and how we say it so that the discussion moves out of the “class” and “caste” space into a fun, cool, urban must-have behavior. We work to imbue the ritual of waste handling with meaning so that this act could build pride and fulfillment in the person doing it.
So, how are you changing this mentality?
We have the following axioms that help us change mindsets:
- Make waste visible, not out of sight out of mind.
- Make the connections visible – social, environmental and ecological connections.
- Make waste decentralized in practice.
- Make waste into a resource; make it useful.
- Make waste beautiful to look at, something that you are proud of, to be celebrated and to be engaged with.
And we work hard to drive across these points. And most importantly the practice of managing waste at source, of making waste visible and beautiful is something that is being transmitted to the next generation. When they see their parents, teachers, and community making this the default option only then will they continue and grow the “cleaning up” mission.
You must have a wonderful team to support your endeavors. Tell us about them.
I have a staff of around 25 people and what’s great about them is that they are willing to do whatever it takes. If that means selling our products, they do it. If it means cleaning a bathroom, they do it. Everyone pitches in and is open to supporting this business because they know that what we do every day benefits us all. We have people who have no education background working here along with PhDs.
We promote a culture of hard work and walking the walk. We have Kalappa, our oldest employee who services our terracotta range. His tenure is offset by newcomers who do design and filmmaking or strategy. Till 2016, we were only three people who took on core responsibilities, now it is heartening to see so many more of us want to take this work forward.
Now you’re able to sell your products and have caused an awakening of sorts, that wasn’t the scenario in the starting. How did you manage the funds in the initial stages of Daily Dump?
It all started as a self-funded project. We were originally a proprietorship and changed into a private limited company after taking an investment from an impact funder.
You use terracotta as the material for making your composting pots, any particular reason behind the choice?
When I first prototyped composters, I found that terracotta was the best material because it was porous and controlled the excess fluid that discharged during decomposition. Also, having worked with crafts for some time, I found that the potters’ skills were being lost; potter families no longer wanted their children to continue in their trade because we had stopped using their pots to cook in, store or use in our daily lives.
So I thought this would be a great starting point – to be able to provide potters a product that could provide them a steady income while simultaneously solving an urban problem. The terracotta pot is also a symbol of an enduring Indian icon. You see it and you feel the earth, you connect – that is the power of this material.
What has been Daily Dump’s success rate till now?
One surefire way to measure our success is to look at how much organic matter we’re keeping out of India’s landfills. Today, all of our customers combined have kept 37,029 kilograms of wet waste out of the landfills every single day. That’s a tremendous success that we all reap the benefits of.
That’s impressive! You must have some pretty rave reviews from your customers.
Our customers tell us that they feel incredibly proud that they can show off their beautiful composter in their main balconies or gardens. They say that because the products are lovely to look at and contribute to the enhanced livelihoods of potters, they have a relationship with the composter that they do not have with other products at home, like the refrigerator or TV. Today there are around 45,000 homes that compost using our products.
Our customers also say that the product is something they enjoy using, so the engagement of waste is not seen as “not my job”. While there is a long way to go with that one, the most decorated feather in our cap happened when a maid told her boss to come and buy the Kambha because she thought it was a good product to manage kitchen waste. And the boss listened!
People have this aversion to keeping waste in their houses as it attracts bacteria and pests. But in your products, one has to deposit waste and let it sit for hours.
Not just hours – days, weeks! It’s true that bacteria and insects are attracted to the compost because they help it break down for us. But my bigger question is why do we have a problem with that? Because these creatures are beneficial! Our basic understanding of nature is flawed if we have an aversion to these fellow earthlings. Unfortunately, we insist on using sanitizers and scare our kids about “hygiene”. Black soldier fly maggots are harmless to us and very useful, as are lizards.
Children are willing to learn and engage more with the other species that we inhabit the world with. Maybe we should learn from them. Home composting is an excellent door that opens this possibility of connecting with nature’s cycles. Finally, it is the magic of decomposition that one becomes infected with – and that’s a joy!
Tell us about the process of composting that takes place in the pots.
When one puts their food scraps into our composter, the food begins to change color, gets smaller and calls the attention of bacteria, fungi, worms, lizards, and ants that help the food to break down. In the process, fluid is released – called leachate – and it shrinks the volume of the organic matter.
Because the air holes in our composters allow for oxygen to circulate, carbon dioxide is released and that prevents foul odors from emerging. At the same time, heat is also generated because of the hard work that millions of bacteria do inside the compost pot and that heat is part of what breaks down your food.
The waste is now converted into compost. So, what is done with it after that?
Once the food scraps become compost – or as we like to call it, Black Gold – it can be used to add rich nutrients to any plant. Whether it’s in your terrace garden or just a tree on your street, you’re helping to put carbon back into the ground, which counteracts the carbon that is released into the air each day by our urban lifestyle. This is also very precious material since our soils are being depleted of life, and compost has just that – life!
Yet, people are a little confused: why should I have to take care of my organic waste and then “waste” that compost on a tree in the street? Well, it is not wasting the compost – it is using it in the best possible way. Just because you do not “own” the tree on the street does not mean it will not benefit from the compost you have no use of. In fact, the tree will smile and love you for it. So this is to all those who have no gardens and think composting are a waste of their time.
Old methods of waste disposal are still practiced like burning waste, dumping grounds etc. What message would you like to give to people who prefer these methods?
Indians have a deep respect for fire. Our traditions show us the beneficial effects of a ritual fire and we think it will be same if we burn plastic with organic material. This mindset is most difficult to change since most people feel there is no difference; a fire is a fire, why are you not allowed to burn leaves, plastic, and paper together?
The message is clear – do not burn dried leaves or plastic or paper. The toxins released are leading to all kinds of skin, respiratory and immunity issues in all life. Open waste burning also contributes to greenhouse gases and climate change.
Your terracotta compost pots are for the 60% of the waste which is organic; what about the 40% waste that is still left?
That’s an excellent question! The 40% left is made up of about 20% recyclable waste, 10% toxic or hazardous waste, and 10% reject waste that cannot be recycled or composted. We also have segregation products for dry waste that people can use so they can collect recyclable materials and take them to their dry waste collection center or to their local kabadiwalla. We sell Saviour Bags to line bins that people use to collect reject waste; they’re made of recycled paper, which is better than plastic.
Once people are composting they likely have no wet waste going in that reject bin so paper makes sense. And then our newest line of e-waste products to collect tube lights, light bulbs, and batteries help take care of much of the hazardous waste one has in the home. These items allow people to take responsibility for the waste they produce. It helps build new habits and transforms our communities in the process.
You also have posters that caution one against wasteful buying habits. How do our buying, shopping habits affect waste management?
Our buying habits are a huge part of the problem. The more we consume, the more we waste. This is especially a problem with takeout food and buying online – for both there is too much packaging. Living a life of convenience means living a life where we toss more and more into the landfill and this is not sustainable. It’s also not healthy for us or for the planet.
Apart from Daily Dump, how else have you incorporated the behavior of responsible waste disposal in you and your family?
I am lucky that I have a family where the only thing we binge shop for are books and luckily those are available as e-books now. We always challenge each other if a purchase is being made – “Do you really need that? Can we be happy just doing window shopping and walk away?” This helps reduce the consumption and clutter.
We do little things to keep our carbon footprint in check. Of course, an air trip reduces the effect in one go, but being organic and using natural materials, cleaning agents and products are values that we hold dear. Mind you, it is a constant effort since it is so easy to just slip back into a fuzzy consumptive daily routine.
What are the amazing things you were able to make out of waste?
A mural for my office with waste steel. It was 8 feet x 6 feet in size, curtains from old wedding sarees, tables from old wooden boxes.
What is that one habit you would love to decompose into a positive one?
Eating chips and samosas! (Laughing) I just can’t stop once I get my hands on them.
Tell us about that one opportunity you think you wasted as an entrepreneur?
I did not take the opportunity to take time off for a sabbatical.
What is your strategy to not let time go to waste?
Set some goals and make a daily list and actually tick them off as they get done.
What is that one thing which you enjoy doing and don’t consider it as ‘wasting time?’
Sipping hot tea at a wayside cafe on an afternoon watching the world go by- ah, bliss!
What is the future of Daily Dump? Any plans of expansion to spread its benefits to more cities?
Certainly, we’re always interested in expanding our operations because it means that more people across the country will be composting. And it means that more potters will be maintaining their craft. At present we are in 17 cities across the country, but there are definitely lots of corners where we’d like to have a presence. We are always on the lookout for partners who want to collaborate with us to spread the word and sell our products.
We want to continue growing in the direction of breaking down the class barrier related to waste. It brings dignity to the simple job of looking after resources well.