Climate change is single-handedly the biggest global crisis faced by the world at large. Environmental degradation costs the world millions of dollars annually, and India is no exception to the case, reeling under extreme weather conditions that aggravate our existing socio-economic challenges.
In the face of these grave realities, the travel and tourism industry is seeing its fair share of initiatives that are trying to mitigate our carbon footprint, even on the go. One such initiative is Earthling First. A sustainability consultancy that also works in the area of waste management, its aim is to create sustainability models for businesses and organisations.
Across the world, every event, regardless of its scale, leaves in its wake waste that adds to the ever-increasing mound of garbage that is indelicately managed and disposed off, adding to the piling landfills. Earthling First helps reduce waste generation through sustainable interventions; they plan and facilitate responsible waste management and disposal by sending it back into the economy, making their operations trash-free. Started by Tamanna Sharma in 2016, Earthling First is an events and event waste management service provider, founded with the aim of creating a circular economy that incorporates sustainability at the core of all its operations.
Sharma was at a government-organised event commemorating World Environment Day a few years ago when she realised the distressing irony of the celebration—the aftermath of the event was a trash-filled venue. "It was then that I started researching ways to ensure sustainable disposal of waste, and looked up companies that organised large-scale events and to whom I could pitch sustainable solutions. Earthling First was born out of a need to find a solution to this problem," Tamanna shares.
A completely bootstrapped venture, Earthling First began with a team of five people and soon spread to 22 cities right before the pandemic disrupted the business. "In the first five years, we offered different services to our clients, which included event management, waste management and sustainable consultancy. Each city has its own composting and disposal system, so we spent these years figuring out the gaps in waste management," she adds. Incorporating careful waste assessment during the planning stage to using biodegradable, local products, Earthling First takes the route of holistic sustainability.
The company also makes sure that for every event, the staff that they employ has an equal ratio of men and women, in order to change the perception of the industry when it comes to the participation of women in their workforce. One of their biggest initiatives, however, is a cause close to Tamanna's heart—an experimental waste management model, high up in the hills at Jalori Pass.
Nestled in the peaks of the northern Himalayas lies the Jalori pass, located between the districts of Kullu and Shimla. A beautiful scenic destination, famed for its trekking trails, Jalori Pass has unfortunately seen a rise in plastic pollution due to increased tourism and the burning of waste due to a lack of proper waste management.
In September 2020, Tamanna heard about Jalori. Perturbed by the state of the once-pristine trekking destination, she resolved to institute a sustainable waste management program in the area. With assistance from Himalayan Nature Camp and a few locals, she designed an intervention which is now Project Jalori. "I started with solo cleanups after spending two months in the area familiarising myself with the needs and desires of the local population. The Himachal Forest Department, women working with the Block Development Office &mdash assistance came in from different corners as the initiative caught on," Sharma explains, with a hint of pride.
Picking Up The Pieces
Her model is being implemented in a 9 km area two trails, one leading to Seryolsar Lake, and the other to the Raghupur Fort Hiking Route. Cleanups are organised in this mountain terrain in partnership with village residents, local businesses, and local authorities of Jalori Pass. To tackle the painstaking task of mixed waste, Tamanna ensured that the waste is separated and categorised at the collection site itself, before being sent to the Material Recovery Facility/Waste Plant.
"A big part of Project Jalori is to ensure that the locals can continue this waste management effort even in our absence. This can be achieved through education. For example, the Himachal Pradesh government has a buy-back policy for multi-layered plastics, such as packets of Maggi and chips. The locals were unaware of this, so I told them to segregate these plastic elements from their waste and keep them clean before they are sold to the Nagar panchayat," Sharma explains. Their first disposal trial was conducted from April 8th-10th April, 2022.
Her achievements in the area are recognised by locals youngsters up at Raghupur Fort now ensure that plastic is segregated properly before disposal. Tamanna also crowdfunded the transport of waste from Jalori Pass to Manali, and now plans to schedule a regular collection and disposal of waste from the area. To see it through, Tamanna has moved her base from Delhi to a place near Jalori.
While the young founder had no intention of promoting eco-bricks as a regular measure, it has caught on in the area. An ecobrick is a plastic bottle packed with used plastic to a set density. They serve as reusable building blocks. What started as a way to teach people to separate and collect their plastic waste is now a permanent fixture in local cafes, all guiding tourists to designated spots for the submission of plastic waste.
Tamanna now plans to create a course that will teach people how to create their own waste management models. "Earthling First's aim is to create a waste management system that can be replicated in places that see tourist footfall, or even on an independent level, to promote sustainability. The fact that we did all this without any funding is proof that change can be brought about without raising huge sums of money. It is mostly the lack of information that is a deterrent to change, and just like Jalori Pass, we can work towards making other tourist destinations waste-free."