Many urban areas in India are home to garbage mountains, and effective management of solid waste in these areas continues to be a daunting challenge. Limited landfills and weak compliance with waste management rules complicate the scenario. Moreover, the impact of improper waste disposal is directly linked to human health. So are there innovative solutions to address the waste management challenge?

Researchers at the Energy Policy Institute and their partner organizations are currently conducting a research experiment in Bengaluru to look for answers. The investigation is exploring if segregation at the household level can limit waste generation. With Hasiru Dala Innovations (HDI) as a partner, as a first step, the team is trying to measure the quantity and quality of waste produced at a micro level to reduce the amount of unsegregated waste that finds its way ending up in landfills. As part of this research experiment, around 1200 households of a large, gated community in South Bengaluru have been surveyed for months

The research is designed to send out biweekly information reports as feedback to households highlighting the average amount of waste they have generated. Simultaneously, the researchers analyze the household waste quantity and segregation quality. With the help of this report, scholars then try to evaluate the impact of different information-based incentives on the amount and quality of waste generated in the longer run. The feedback reports also allow the residents who are part of this experiment to know which households perform better than their neighbors. The study finally aims to unravel the big question: does providing information nudge on waste management alter the behavior of urban households?

Amir Jina, Assistant Professor at Harris School of Public Policy Studies, the University of Chicago and one of the principal investigators in this project, says, “We are trying to test an innovative and unconventional approach to reduce the amount of unsegregated waste that ends up in landfills. The goal here is to understand how waste management behavior can be altered at the household level. The assumption is that if we act consciously and generate less waste, we may take some load off the overburdened waste management processes, but how do we do that effectively? That’s our research question.”

But why is segregation at the household level so critical? HDI, Co-founder & CEO Shekar Prabhakar says, “We at HDI consider ‘segregation at source’ as the cornerstone of responsible waste management to ensure optimal material recovery and better working conditions for waste workers. We insist on a minimum 75% quality of segregation level before we onboard a bulk generator client and help them reach 95% within three months. This has helped us redirect over 90% of the waste we collect to be diverted away from landfills and responsibly processed or recycled.” HDI was one of the winners of the Bengaluru Innovation Challenge that taps grassroots creativity and expertise to identify innovative ideas for addressing the most pressing environmental and energy challenges. Since 2019, researchers at the University of Chicago have been working closely with HDI to critically address essential questions relating to waste reduction, disposal, and behavior change.

So are there any promising early results emerging out of this experiment? EPIC, South Asia Director, Anant Sudarshan, and one of the principal investigators of this research project says, This is still work in progress, but initial results indicate that information nudges can positively influence waste management behavior. For example, we found that families receiving information reports reduced their generation of wet-waste by 11.2% percent and increased segregation. These results are preliminary, but they do suggest that behavioral economics and nudges may have an important role to play in waste management, similar to how they have previously been used to successfully encourage energy conservation.” Presently, under the evaluation stage, the project can potentially empower policymakers and residents alike to craft data-informed solutions to tackle solid waste management across India in the longer run.