Let’s freecycle India

Let’s Freecycle India

Everyone loves free stuff. What if you get free stuff and also get to contribute your bit to save the environment? That is what the idea behind Freecycle is. Freecycle is a network that has close, almost five thousand groups and seven million members in 85 countries around the world. This rapidly growing non-profit organisation claims to keep 500 tons/day out of landfills. Their work is neither charity nor entrepreneurship; it stems from the basic human value of give & take.

The concept is simple. If you have something that you don’t want or don’t have a use for and feel like throwing away in the waste then instead of binning it, give it to someone who has a need for it. Freecycle has city specific email groups where people advertise things they want to give away and whoever asks for it first gets to keep it. The giver may also oblige to drop it to your place if he is kind.

Mandar Mali, a graduate student at the Illinois Institute of Technology says “It’s very common in the US that the house you rent will be unfurnished.” For students who will be studying in a university abroad just for a few years it doesn’t make sense to buy new furniture just to sell it after sometime. This is where freecycle kicks in. “I got almost every piece of furniture in my house from people ready to give away things for free. All I had to do is rent a van for a day and go around the town picking up the items people advertise.” he continues.

Recycling in India although has existed for quite a long time. Thanks to the valiant ragpickers and kabaris who have made sure that they collect our unsorted garbage and recycle whatever can be. However theirs is indeed a difficult task. An undermined and unregulated activity, it renders almost a million people in India to live a very low standard of life. Most people in this profession earn very little daily which causes almost a million people in India to live a very low standard of life. The occupational hazard of working in this profession is also a serious issue. With the technological progress, India also has a growing electronic waste problem. A proper system does not exist to handle such waste and almost 150,000 tons of electronic waste is recycled informally every year, exposing these warriors of waste to radioactive tubes from CRTs and to toxic metals like Lead, Cadmium and Antimony

India currently boasts of very feeble numbers when it comes to the membership of freecycle. Compared to Freecycle India’s 4000 strong membership, Freecycle UK has almost 2 million members. Bangalore leads the way with over a thousand members but the numbers quickly fall. Cities on the list are: Bangalore (1150), Mumbai (546), Delhi (511), Hyderabad (427), Pune (426), Chennai (387), Gurgaon (192), Lucknow (116), Panaji (102), Jalandhar (36), Jaipur (35), Ahmedabad (32), Vijaywada (27) and Kolkata (21). Kolkata is the only metro city which has very few members.

Following a system like freecycle not only helps people get stuff for free but also enables the society to help reduce unnecessary waste from going to landfills or causing harm to people involved in this profession. Yet the success of this system depends on the number of people involved in the activity. More the number of people, more the choice of things available and more attractive does the whole scheme becomes. These low numbers can be attributed to lack of awareness but with the growth of the reach of internet in India, we only hope that green activities like freecycle will take a quick leap.

First published at YouthkiAwaaz.com

A Chemist’s carbon footprint reduction

As a synthetic chemist, it is a very embarrassing question if asked about our personal carbon footprint. Frankly, it is much greater than normal citizens. We use flammable and non-flammable solvents very regularly. Most of the chemical reagents we use are of 99.9% purity requiring large amounts of energy to manufacture and purify. These chemicals are shipped from all over the world and require extra care in transportation. We often use rare metals in reactions, these require a great amount of energy to isolate. Yes, we are guilty of a larger carbon footprint than normal citizens. But no one asks how can we reduce it?

This question bugged me for quite sometime. We can do all those things that normal citizens do but as chemists can we do something more? One of our major contributions come from our use of solvents. I thought, looking into solvent disposal might give a hint into some simple steps that may be taken to reduce emissions. So I had a chat with our department‘s Safety Officer. He started the conversation with a very blunt question, “Why do you ask?”. May be he thought, I am one of those extreme climate change activist. After I explained to him what I wanted to know about it and that I meant no harm he said, “I was taken aback because no one wants to what happens to it after it’s dumped.” So he realised some people care and he was happy to answer any question I had.

One of the companies Oxford regularly uses for it’s waste disposal is Grundon. While we are in the lab, we separate our solvent waste in Hydrocarbons (Petrol, Diethyl Ether, Ethyl Acetate), Chlorinated (Dichloromethane, Cholroform) and Acetone (Wash acetone with lots of water). Chlorinated wastes needs to be disposed by incineration to avoid formation of dioxins where as hydrocarbon can be used for energy recovery. But what he thought is that the HC waste is used to create the high temperature furnace for the incineration of chlorinated waste. What about acetone? He said, “Most of it is taken by cement industry. If they see it’s dark in colour they won’t touch it, but otherwise they use it.” But is recycling not possible for any kind of waste? “No, I think it’s too energy intensive to get clean solvent than to just burn it off.”

He digressed and gave some interesting statistics, Oxford University produces a lot of waste. The only chemistry department that has comparable volume of waste is Cambridge. “Sure, but that’s because we are the biggest chemistry department in the UK, right?” Yes he says, “I talk to most Russell group universities about what they do about waste management. It turns out some universities don’t produce more than two barrels a month! And here we fill couple a day.”

Anyways, ending the talk I said, “So the best we can do is make sure we separate the different types of solvents with care?”. “I guess, but I don’t think that will make a big difference unless everyone does it.” From all this, the conclusion I could come up with is that we can do the following to help cut emission in someway.

  • Minimise use of chlorinated solvents. (even though DCM is my favourite, low-boiling and polar)
  • Try not to mix chlorinated and non-chlorinated solvents. (I often rinse column tubes with DCM even if I have done a hydrocarbons only column. I guess using ether is a better option but it is much more expensive than ethyl acetate. Thus, although acetone (not wash acetone) is high-boiling it is the best option or use ethyl acetate?).
  • Turn the temperature of the oven lower?
  • Do smaller scale reaction when one can (reduces a lot of things, smaller columns, less solvent and lesser time for same results, most of the times).
  • Spend time thinking which experiment to do, make sure you have a strong justification (saves time, saves waste!)

These are conclusions based on my experience and the very little data that I have gathered. I am hoping to look into it a bit further and try and collect some hard statistics on this issue. If anyone has anything to add to this, I would be really happy to hear from you.