Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Vani Murthy: Building a sustainable, low-waste army

Vani Murthy, one of the founding members of the Solid Waste Management Roundtable, took to social media to share ways to reduce, recycle, and compost household waste; her online and offline initiatives are driving real change

Divya J Shekhar
Published: Oct 31, 2023 12:58:21 PM IST
Updated: Oct 31, 2023 01:17:03 PM IST

Vani Murthy: Building a sustainable, low-waste armyVani Murthy took to Facebook in 2007, when she was in her mid-40s. Image: SELVAPRAKASH LAKSHMANAN for Forbes India

Vani Murthy was in her mid-40s when she first learnt how to use a laptop. This was around 2007. Prior to that, she didn’t even have an email ID. The Bengaluru resident was a homemaker who was content in her domestic and caregiving roles, but increasingly feeling the need to do something outside of home. She became part of the local resident welfare association (RWA) and, with other like-minded people, started engaging in civic issues in the city that she could help address.

She created a Facebook account around the same time, and remembers her son jokingly wondering why she would need to be on social media at her age. For Vani, being on Facebook was simply a way to document what she was doing. She loved to click photos, and soon became the unofficial archivist for her group, with hundreds of albums detailing where they went, why and when.

A visit to a landfill in Mavallipura, a village to the north of Bengaluru, led her to develop a strong commitment towards working to decentralise waste. She saw how the pollution created by waste dumped on the landfill affected the lives of people around there. “You got black water from the pump because the groundwater was contaminated. The soil was also contaminated, but they were growing food on that soil to send to Bengaluru,” she recollects. “I realised that whatever waste we dumped into the landfill was coming back to us in some form or the other. I did not want to add to the mess anymore and decided to take responsibility of waste.”

She not only decided to practice sustainable living at home, but also became one of the founding members of the Solid Waste Management Roundtable (SWMRT), a collective of solid waste management practitioners who help citizens and civic municipalities adopt decentralised and sustainable waste management practices. Together, the group worked to execute various initiatives on how waste, instead of just being dumped, can be recycled and turned into a resource.

Vani explains the importance of creating a robust circular economy of waste, right from citizens understanding the need to segregate at source to creating a healthy work environment for waste-pickers. “Reduction of waste that ends up in landfills is the primary target,” she says. “Dumping or incineration is not the solution. It should be about waste recovery. About 90 percent of waste generated at home still has life and is a resource that can go back into the circular economy.”
Vani Murthy: Building a sustainable, low-waste army
Composting wet waste, Vani says, takes care of almost 60 percent of the total waste generated at home. About 30-odd percent is dry waste, which can be sent to dry waste collection centres. This would leave only 10 percent “reject waste”, such as sanitary or hazardous waste, to be dumped or incinerated.

The SWMRT’s efforts include educating people about waste segregation at source, pros and cons of burning waste, how to start composing and growing your own food at home, sustainable hygiene practices, and building learning centres to create awareness in individuals, communities and corporates.

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The group also seeks policy-level shifts, among which is a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) that led to the Karnataka High Court ordering a mandatory segregation of waste at source, apart from asking municipal authorities to set up dry waste collection centres, and giving waste-pickers ID cards to ensure their rights to the dry waste.

Social media, Vani says, helps “amplify good work, sensitise people, and even try to encourage those sitting on the fence to jump on the side of doing good work and taking responsibility”.

Around 2013, Vani pivoted to Instagram from Facebook. With 305,000 followers today, her profile includes posts about how to grow vegetables in your home garden, how you can start composting, how to travel in a sustainable manner, and menstrual hygiene. “Every post will have something to do with good habits and practices. I post consistently and stay engaged with people. I tell them what I’m up to. I particularly enjoy making reels. It’s fun, given I also get to select the music of my choice,” she says, adding that she does not do too many paid partnerships or “collabs”, a major engine for most content creators.

In fact, Vani says, laughing, she did not even know what a blue tick is when her niece suggested she get one. “I got my blue tick when I was nearing 50,000 followers on Instagram. The follower count grew very organically. I just put out content on my everyday practices. I’ve been talking about the same things over and over again for the past 14 years and I am as excited today, at the age of 62, as I was back then.” Even when she does collabs, it’s almost always to promote a good cause, and all proceeds go towards SWMRT, Vani says.
Vani Murthy: Building a sustainable, low-waste army
Vani has an “amazing commitment” towards the waste management cause, says Nalini Shekar, co-founder of Hasiru Dala, a social enterprise that works to ensure dignity of labour to waste-pickers and waste workers. “She has helped waste-pickers so many times.” She recalls a time last year when Vani used her Instagram page to amplify Hasiru Dala’s campaign to assist hair-pickers in Bengaluru whose livelihood had been adversely affected due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hair-pickers are a category of waste-pickers who collect and sell hair strands. “Vani did a series of Instagram posts about them, and because of her, people are now sending us hair from their homes in an envelope,” says Shekar.

For Vani, being a digital content creator is all about putting out posts with “positive vibes” that play a role in building an army of people who practice sustainable, low-waste living. “I want to bring excitement and fun in being mindful of our footprint on this planet,” she says.

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