French Garbage Company Disrupts Community Initiatives

French Corporation Onyx Destroys Community's Garbage Operations

By Nityanand Jayaraman
India Resource Center
March 25, 2002

In Chennai, a major port city in southern India, two sister companies, French multinationals Onyx and Vivendi, are working at cross-purposes. While Vivendi works to commercialize scarce fresh water in the city, Onyx collects the city's garbage and dumps it in one of the most important freshwater ecosystems in the city. See the rest of the story at Trashing Water is Good Business.

Onyx's role in water pollution and privatization in Chennai have irked not merely those concerned with the city's water security. Citizens' groups such as Exnora are sore that Onyx has destroyed the carefully built community initiatives to address garbage at a street level.

Exnora began in 1989 as a civic initiative to beautify Chennai by addressing street garbage. Targeting primarily the middle-class and the well-to-do, the initiative met with resounding success and spread rapidly to other locations in the city and country.

The formula was simple: Exnora's activists would educate residents to form Civic Exnora associations at street level. The residents would pay for a street beautifier (earlier, a ragpicker) to collect their garbage door-to-door everyday. The ragpicker extracts recyclables and reusables from the garbage before transporting the remainder to the municipal transfer stations. Over the years, Exnora had managed to convince several associations to segregate their wastes.

Just before Onyx entered the picture, Exnora associations covered up to 20 percent of the city by Municipal Corporation estimates. The stage was set for decentralized garbage management, waste reduction, composting and many other progressive initiatives, according to T.K. Ramkumar of Exnora.

The scheme had several fringe benefits. Neighbors got together regularly to discuss hygiene and garbage issues of their streets. The infrastructure had been laid to have decentralized composting and zero waste centers. The decentralized composting scheme alone had the potential to divert up to 1500 tons of garbage everyday from reaching the landfill. A few such centers are currently in operation.

However, the decade-long effort was dealt a severe blow when garbage collection and disposal was privatized and handed over to Onyx. "Many decentralized Civic Exnoras were shut down. Community structures collapsed. Wherever we had brought in source segregation, things were going haywire because Onyx reverted to collecting mixed garbage," Ramkumar laments.

Segregation-at-source is now acknowledged as the most crucial pre-treatment for household discards. This allows for the recyclables to be recycled, the reusables to be reused and the compostables to be turned into organic fertilizer. Most importantly, it reduces the quantity of discards that would end up in landfills.

"Onyx earns by volume or tonnage dumped. So [waste] avoidance is not in their interest," says Ramkumar.

According to Ramkumar, the privatization of garbage collection and disposal may have made life difficult for ragpickers, especially those who were engaged as street beautifiers by Exnora's street-level associations. "Because of all the resources in garbage, garbage presents an opportunity for low-income people to earn money with low per-capita investment. Where is the need for a multinational company to come to India to collect and dump wastes in an unscientific way," he says.

A similar contract by Onyx in Alexandria, Egypt, has led to a similar disruption of the recycling and recovery operations performed by ragpicker families there. (1)

Notes: "The Big Cleanup," Cairo Times, Vol. 5, Issue 37, 22-28 November, 2001. http://www.cairotimes.com/content/archiv05/trash.html

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