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Verve People
May 21, 2019

How Clinton Vaz Is Tackling The Mounting Garbage Problem In Goa

Text by Joanna Lobo. Photographs By Clinton Vaz / vRecycle

He’s been working hard for two decades to instil a sense of civic responsibility in the community, having caught the attention of the local government when he was in his early twenties. Verve converses with the hands-on eco-warrior, who is changing Goa’s system of waste management

On the surface, Clinton Vaz, 37, seems like an ordinary man. He lives with his wife, Emma, in Colva, a coastal village in South Goa. He has a nine-to-five job and gets weekends off. He loves travelling and working on farms. He is tall and of slight build, with a shy smile, and wears baggy pants, or jeans and T-shirts. But if you dig beneath, you’ll find that there’s more to him than meets the eye — just like the cause that he champions. For the last 20 years, Vaz has been the face of Goa’s garbage movement, working with municipalities, educational institutions and individuals to help reduce the mounting trash problem.

Vaz’s journey began by accident. When he was a young student of 19, his family moved from the bustling city of Margao to the quieter coastal Benaulim. He soon found that the village had no waste management system. “There were no bins or trucks for the disposal of garbage. Neighbours just told us to chuck it into the fields or river, so I realised that I had to handle things myself,” he says.

He spoke to waste pickers and gave them around 25 per cent of the garbage from his home. A composting course helped him reduce the waste produced by another 50 per cent. Around the same time, he teamed up with a group of Swedish students working on an environmental awareness project in Goa, which led to the formation of the Benaulim Environment Trust (BET). He visited Sweden in 2003, on a three-month study tour, and buoyed by his research on waste management, Vaz soon began to share this knowledge with neighbours and friends, both online and offline.

“That’s when I got the call.”

It was 2005. The call came from the then municipal commissioner of Panaji. The state capital is popular for its views of the Mandovi River, the colourful Indo-Portuguese homes in the old Latin Quarter of Fontainhas, and its heritage structures. It is the site for most of the state’s cultural festivals and events, including the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), and is an administrative and business hub.

As such, Panaji’s daily touristic footfall always outnumbers the residents. More people means more trash. Back then, the city was dumping its waste into a landfill in the nearby village of Curca, and the wall of untreated garbage collapsed onto the village’s land, seeping into the ground and groundwater.

The citizens of Panaji didn’t know what to do with their waste, and they sought the help of the then 24-year-old. “I was overwhelmed,” says Vaz. “My theory had worked when applied in my home and neighbourhood, but I hadn’t tested it at a citywide level. However, I realised pretty quickly that it was something that could easily be
scaled up.”

Vaz approached the project methodically, like he would a college assignment. He weighed the trucks, counted the bins and dissected the trash. Three months later, he handed over a report that outlined the problems and their solutions. Once approved, he quit his job as a mechanical engineer to lead the implementation. “We needed to do it in an educated way. The trash needed to be segregated at the beginning for my system to work. In 2006, we carried out a citywide education campaign that included the building of 175 composting units,” he says. Through solutions like these, he was able to process 85 per cent of the garbage that was collected.

Vaz’s partnership with the government ended in 2009 when he quit because of bureaucratic interference. He recalls, “There were limitations to what I was able to do. Every step took three months to execute because of the slow movement of files by officials and corruption. It was frustrating.”

Once again, he set out to do things on his own.

The same year, he registered a firm, vRecycle Waste Management Services, which had two employees and one vehicle, using 10,000 rupees from his savings account. “My aim was to make this whole system sustainable. I wanted to see if an engineering graduate could turn to a completely different profession and still make money,” he says.

Today, he has a staff of 17, one warehouse in Margao and two vehicles. Collection happens on fixed days — half the staff is on collection duty and the rest is at the warehouse, processing the waste by hand and sorting it into 20 categories. Vaz personally goes to 55 individual homes, while vRecycle works with 10,000 homes, 130 gated communities and societies, and three villages, all in South Goa. They are able to process 98 per cent of the garbage. A significant achievement was convincing Tetra Pak India to recycle their cartons for the first time in the country. The challenge is sanitary waste — no one has found a solution beyond incinerating it, which is an expensive proposition because of the high liquid content.

The company’s earnings come from the sale of recyclables and from the service fee. Its fees are on the lower scale: panchayats are charged 50 rupees per home per month. The highest level of service — collecting wet and dry waste from homes — is priced at 200 to 250 rupees per month. “I tell people, ‘A cup of tea at a coffee chain will cost you more than this!’ The true cost of waste management — collection, treatment and disposal — is high and not everyone is willing to pay for it.” Vaz also believes in treating his workers well; both men and women are paid equally and above minimum wage. “We have managed to achieve the goals we set. We’ve always been financially stable; we make money, though not big profits, and are as legal as can be,” he states.

Perhaps his biggest thrill is to show people around his ‘office’ — the warehouse where the trash is segregated and recycled. They hold an open house twice a year during which people can tour the facility, meet the recyclers, watch them work and join them. Or, they can talk to Vaz over samosas and cups of chai. “People should be familiar with the process. They might sort their waste better at home if they know that a human being handles it beyond the dustbin. Residents are now claiming ownership of their garbage, and it’s an important step toward solving the problem,” he explains.

Vaz’s biggest push is for education, through school visits and field trips to his warehouse. “Children take this seriously. They want to know how to start segregating waste at home. If a school has a 1,000 kids and we manage to reach out to 1,000 households, that’s a big return on investment,” he says. A major success story is Verna’s Father Agnel Ashram that is home to various educational institutions, including a primary school, secondary schools, training institutes, a craft school, a trade school and a polytechnic. Vaz installed a waste management system here and they now run it themselves. The gardeners sort the garbage, there are collection days and wet waste gets composted. “We only buy their recyclables — they have made over 2.5 lakh rupees in the last four years. They used to burn all their waste before, this is a complete saving for them,” he adds.

Currently, vRecycle diverts 100 tonnes of garbage away from the landfill monthly. “If we quantify it, we are working with only one to two per cent of the entire state’s garbage,” he says. “It’s not much.” It is substantial, however, if viewed from the perspective of Goa’s mounting garbage problem and the government’s lack of initiative. There is a stench of neglect and overflowing garbage bins, beaches littered with bottles and packets, and drains choked by plastic waste are common sights these days. On paper, a lot is happening, like the announcements for new waste treatment plants and fines for tourists who drink, litter or cook in the open. Vaz outlines the problem, “The government is spending money, but it is not equal to the garbage growth. We need to talk about changing our lifestyle choices so that we produce less waste. And our mixed waste treatment plants are producing compost, which has plastic and glass in it; there is very little recovery of glass and none of paper, the two major components of dry waste. Since recyclables are badly contaminated, they are unfit for recycling. Garbage has to be segregated in order to process and treat it effectively. Those are policy decisions that lie with the government. Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, for example, is only talking about putting things in a bin but they are not talking about putting them in the right bin. We first need to talk about segregation, because now the waste is still mixed. The next step is composting and recycling,” he elaborates.

Vaz has his fingers in many pies apart from vRecycle. Last year, he took volunteers to Monkey Beach on the secluded Bat or Grande Island, popular for fishing and water sports. The team recovered over 2,000 kilograms of waste. He co-runs two wildlife and environmental awareness groups online. He has assisted the Goa Forest Department in the rescue and rehabilitation of snakes and wild animals. A few years ago, he participated in the Save the Frog campaign, initiated by activist Nirmal Kulkarni, to highlight their declining population; poaching is common during the onset of monsoons as frog legs are quite the local delicacy.

The challenges are plenty and won’t stop, but Vaz isn’t fazed. He looks forward to the day that the concept of zero waste becomes a reality. Emma and he lead by example — they recycle dry waste, compost their food and make daily choices to ensure limited garbage production.

Though his goals have changed in these 20 years, Vaz enjoys his work. “It gives me fulfilment when I see that at the end of the day, we make some kind of a difference,” he says contentedly.

In the recent past, Goa has seen its citizens take up the eco-friendly cause of waste management.

In 2018, Eldridge Lobo and Jonah Fernandes started Ecoposro, a zero-waste, plastic-free ecostore located in the North Goan village of Parra. Vendors are encouraged to use gunny sacks, cloth and paper bags are given to customers and everything is stored in glass jars and containers.

Over on the touristy Candolim-Baga beach stretch, organisations Tera Mera Beach and Drishti Marine (the agency tasked with cleaning the beaches by the state government) have launched a ‘waste bar’. Here, people can trade waste as currency against beer and cocktails.

Another popular beach, Anjuna, has combined its party sensibilities with civic duty. Earlier this year, community organisation The Clean Team starting hosting Beach Clean parties, on Sundays. A group armed with trash bags, sticks and musical instruments walk down the beach picking up litter. Their breaks involve drumming, singing and dancing.

Last year, Vaz helped create the Goa Waste Management Atlas, a Google Map with geotagged photos showing waste management sites in the state, from unused waste treatment plants of the government to private recyclers. “There is now a network that facilitates an exchange of information and help. It didn’t exist earlier,” he says.

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