Uttarakhand's Digital Deposit Refund System Paves The Way For Waste Management

The scheme encourages consumers to return their plastic waste in exchange for a refundable deposit amount. Abhay Deshpande, founder and CEO of Recykal, the tech startup that has facilitated the programme, tells us more about its impact and the way ahead
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Representative imageRecykal

Uttarakhand's auspicious Char Dham Yatra has always battled with the waste management challenge. Every year there are reports of heaps of litter found strewn near the holy shrines. This year, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) observed that the infrastructure for waste management at these sites is "grossly inadequate." And as the pilgrimage season kickstarts, the menace of waste generation also spikes, with reportedly more than 1,500 tonnes of waste generated daily. To deal with the persistent problem of surging waste, the Uttarakhand government, in 2022, partnered with a Hyderabad-based tech startup, Recykal and introduced a digitally refundable way to dispose of plastic waste.

The idea is to control plastic pollution by giving customers a 100% refund for their green deposit amount. Following the pilot program's success in Kedarnath during the Char Dham Yatra 2022, the Digital Deposit Refund System (DRS) has been expanded to Gangotri and Yamunotri. While for Badrinath, the scheme will be implemented as soon as the necessary paperwork is done. With the project now being adapted in the tourist hotspot NainitalRecykal's Founder and CEO Abhay Deshpande spoke to Outlook Traveller on the DRS's implementation in Char Dham Yatra and its scope in other states.

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Representative imageRecykal

Please give us an overview of how Recykal's Digital Deposit Refund System (DRS) is implemented in the ongoing Char Dham Yatra. What are the key benefits of this scheme

The journey began at the sacred Kedarnath shrine, an important destination for the 'Char Dham Yatra' pilgrimage. Following a two-year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2022 witnessed a significant surge in pilgrims visiting the shrine. Unfortunately, this influx also brought along an unfortunate consequence piles of trash scattered around the revered site and its surrounding mountains and water bodies. Recognising the urgent need for waste management, the district administration took action in April 2022, launching a pilot program known as the Digital Deposit Refund System (DRS) in collaboration with our startup, Recykal. After implementing this initiative, the bottle collection has witnessed a significant 52% improvement, contributing to cleaner surroundings. Most importantly, the initiative successfully prevented the entry of 1.63 lakh plastic bottles into the water bodies of the Himalayas. 

DRS aims to cultivate a digitally-enabled behavioural change among pilgrims embarking on the yatra. As a part of the scheme, which has since expanded to other shrines like Gangotri and Yamunotri, nearly 30 lakh Unique Serialised Identification (USI)&nbspcodes were distributed. By introducing USI codes on plastic bottles, local ragpickers are also empowered to collect littered bottles and generate extra income through this refund mechanism, generating additional income while participating in this sustainability mission. The impact of this innovative scheme has been remarkable. 

Could you walk us through DRS's process of collecting and recycling waste

The Digital Deposit Refund System (DRS) revolutionises waste disposal. Under this scheme, plastic items are sold with a refundable deposit, each package marked with USI codes. The local administration mandates these codes to be pasted on the packaging of different products, ensuring accountability throughout the entire cycle. At the point of purchase, customers pay a fully refundable green deposit ranging from INR 2 to INR 10, depending on the material category. Once the products have been consumed, the empty waste packaging material can be returned to any collection centre. Upon scanning the USI code at the collection point, customers receive a 100% deposit refund. The irresponsibly littered USI-coded packaging can be picked up by sanitation workers or local ragpickers, and they can generate extra income. This way, clean, recyclable material is collected and safely sent for recycling. By implementing digital DRS, the waste material is re-introduced into the packaging cycle, bringing it back into circularity and ensuring responsible disposal. The scheme applies to plastic products such as chip packets, cold drinks, water bottles, sachets, shampoo bottles, and tetra packs. 

What has been the response from consumers, retailers, and other stakeholders regarding the scheme in Uttarakhand Have there been any challenges in its implementation

Following the pilot project's success in Kedarnath, the Rudraprayag district administration has taken a decisive step forward by implementing the scheme along the Char Dham Yatra route. The first phase of this expansion focuses on the yatra routes of Gangotri and Yamunotri in the district of Uttarkashi. The administration, recognising these holy sites' significance, lauds DRS as a crucial tool for achieving sustainable plastic management throughout the pilgrimage.

At the outset, the initiative faced scepticism from key stakeholders such as shopkeepers, distributors, and hotels. However, through the tireless efforts of the administration and the dedicated team at Recykal, the project is gradually gaining momentum and garnering the support of the local community. The DRS, poised to establish a circular waste collection and processing system, aims to safeguard our rivers and mountains from the blight of plastic littering.

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Representative imageRecykal

A recent report revealed that only 12% of bottles have been returned. What factors have led to low return rate under the Char Dham deposit refund policy How does Recykal plan to overcome these challenges

The report was published in the initial phase of the pilgrimage when the routes were closed due to bad weather. Therefore, most USI-applied goods were not sold, and the collection rate was low. After the Kapats (shrine portals) were opened for darshanpilgrims started responding well to the scheme. However, there is also a need for more education and awareness among pilgrims. We have implemented some measures to overcome this challenge. Like, audio clips are circulated and played continuously along the Yatra route. Special audio clips for shopkeepers are being used to encourage support for selling USI-coded bottles only.

Moreover, shopkeepers who actively support the DRS are given a special certificate. The idea is to instil a sense of ownership. Using Recykal's innovative technology has proven effective in inducing behavioural change among pilgrims, promoting responsible waste disposal, and halting plastic pollution at holy pilgrimage sites like Kedarnath, Gangotri, and Yamunotri. 

In May, the Uttarakhand High Court directed the state government to implement the DRS statewide. Is Recykal in talks with the state government for the same

We are in talks with the government to implement the scheme throughout the state. Given our capacity to manage and execute this project statewide, we hope for a positive outcome. However, it is essential to recognise that implementing such a system requires collective effort and cooperation from all stakeholders. The Uttarakhand government has taken many commendable steps to address the problem of plastic waste, and we will be happy to contribute with our domain expertise in sustainability and technology.

Are there any plans to expand Recykal's DRS to other states in India What factors are considered when determining the feasibility of implementing the scheme in new locations

We are in talks with multiple state governments who have closely watched the progress of our implementation here. The Digital India Award has also helped us get more visibility. Some of the discussions are at an advanced stage.

Since DRS's introduction in Uttarakhand, have you noticed any significant improvements concerning plastic pollution

We are amazed by the impressive figures reported for the number of bottles collected from some of the state's most popular tourist spots. Between April 22 and June 16, 2023, an impressive tally of over 75,000 bottles was collected from Gangotri, Yamunotri, Kedarnath, and Chopta. This accomplishment was made possible through the joint efforts of Recykal and the local administration, with over 4 lakh plus codes distributed across these regions. Our estimations also indicate that approximately 25% of the bottles with applied USI codes were successfully sold in the marketplace. Building upon this estimation, 75% of these bottles were subsequently collected back into the system through the implemented processes. These staggering numbers testify to the effective partnership between Recykal and the state government.

As the Indian government amps up its sustainable tourism practices, how can tourists do their bit

Being responsible citizens of this country, tourists should consciously choose responsible tourism practices that include sustainability, conservation, and reducing their carbon footprint. We urge all travellers to be mindful of the waste they produce and to reduce it by carrying reusable water bottles, bags, and straws. Disposing of garbage thoughtfully and opting for eco-friendly alternatives wherever possible is essential. 

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