April 14, 2008
For those fortunate and diligent enough to discover Mauritius, a small island nation in the Indian Ocean east of Madagascar, the effort is rewarded with breathtaking vistas of mountainous terrain highlighting pristine tropical beaches and reef protected shoreline. A discussion of negative environmental impact against this backdrop of paradise may seem irrelevant and academic at best, but closer examination reveals potential environmental issues and lifestyles that could threaten even this remote, self-contained ecosystem in a small part of Eden. Dr. Chandrado Bokhoree of the University of Technology Mauritius (UTM) in cooperation with the Ministry of Local Government Mauritius, has begun a forward thinking long term project to impact these environmental issues and has reached out to MIT for assistance in managing some of its concerns.
In January 2008, SDM student, Hrishikesh Ballal, a distance-learning student, living in Ireland, was awarded a fellowship by the MIT Public Service Center (PSC) to spend time during the Independent Activities Program to work on developing Mauritius’s first e-waste collection center. The PSC Fellowship provided the funding, and the PSCs Fellowships Coordinator, Alison Hynd, provided the information, guidance and oversight to support Hrishi’s success with the project.
Hrishi, as an employee of Microsoft Ireland Research, part of Microsoft Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) headquartered in Dublin, was able to work through Microsoft EMEA and its subsidiaries, Microsoft West, East and Central Africa (WECA) and Microsoft Indian Ocean Islands Ltd (IOIL), to initiate contact and interaction with the Corporate and Social Responsibility (CSR) teams of Microsoft IOIL and their partners to explore computer end of life cycle and e-waste issues. Microsoft is involved with The Digital Pipeline Project (www.digitalpipeline.org), an initiative that refurbishes and redeploys computers to developing countries, specifically in Africa.
Although Hrishi had MIT and Microsoft support for this project, he discovered some unanticipated obstacles that hindered this initiative. Language became an unintentional hurdle in working with this project, since a foundational piece for this project involved gathering public surveys on household waste patterns, and Mauritius’s predominant languages are French and Creole. Although Hrishi had done research on Mauritius before arriving on the island, he had not realized how little, English would be understood by the public at large.
In addition, understanding the complexity of the problem was a major challenge. Hrishi discovered that, "getting the big picture and connecting the dots, especially when trying to understand the different aspects of the problem, was very complicated."
As the complexity of this project surfaced during his time in Mauritius, Hrishi realized that his previous professional experience and skills, whether designing layouts for Honda in the US, understanding complex systems, or shipping worldwide software for Microsoft "were not only tested but also honed." To Hrishi, Mauritius has become more than an obscure point on the globe. It has become a tangible real world opportunity to integrate his personal environmental consciousness, career path, academic background and holistic systems engineering outlook into a unified focus for making a positive impact on e-waste management.
"I am in a unique position to facilitate positive change," said Hrishi. Working with UTM and Microsoft Indian Ocean Islands, Hrishi has begun the initial research and organization on this project and is now assessing the scope and vision of this project for the coming year and long term implications.
Like many developing countries, Mauritius has no formal recycling programs. Consequently, waste management is often a mixture of marginal unhygienic recycling, unsupervised incineration, and unsorted landfill disposal. While much of the waste is "green" biodegradable garbage, the toxicity of electronic component waste (e-waste) can have a major detrimental impact on population and ecosystem. Current research shows e-waste to be about 5% of the total waste stream, or 50 to 60 tons a month.
The E-waste Collection Center Project, which is devoted to assessing the entire waste stream, is calculated to have a local impact on environmental quality as well as establishing a pilot model for other developing countries that lack an organized plan for waste recycling. "The SDM program has taught me to think holistically" Hrishi explains, and he is endeavoring to use these skills to develop a framework that can easily be adapted by other small island states and developing countries.
Thinking globally is embedded in Hrishi’s character. Born in India, he spent his childhood in Japan, earned a BS degree in Mechanical Engineering in India, and an MS degree in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Michigan. In addition, Hrishi’s work experience has lead him from Ann Arbor to Tokyo, to New York, to Ohio and now to Dublin, where he is currently a Platforms Engineer with Microsoft Ireland. There he is working with a team responsible for international releases of Office products in 27 languages. His background in Mechanical Engineering and an interest in algorithms and systems design led him to MIT’s SDM program.
SDM’s academic content attracted his attention, but the distance between Dublin and Cambridge and the need to maintain a full-time position with Microsoft, loomed as a major obstacle to applying. However, SDM’s distance learning option made his participation possible, without sacrificing his position with Microsoft Ireland.
Hrishi candidly admits that distance learning is not the optimal environment, but for him it was the "only option". He felt he would not be able to participate fully in student life as a distance student, but realized over time that becoming a member of the MIT community, via SDM brought a unique, unexpected contribution to his learning experience, even while he was in Dublin.
Hrishi was surprised at the rich level of networking available within the MIT/SDM community, and found that it contributed significantly to his growth as a whole person, both academically and occupationally. The quantity and quality of the networking among students and faculty has become, in his mind, an invaluable asset in addressing the ongoing issues of real world systems engineering and management.
In Hrishi Ballal’s mind, the opportunity to be involved in the Independent Activities Program and the Mauritius project, was simply a "hands-on" extension of the educational process initiated within the MIT community. The IAP ended in January, but to Hrishi this was just a beginning. "This has been a thoroughly enjoyable experience and it is not over yet. The point of an education in my mind is to give you the right thinking tools to be a better person. I would never be able to do this if I was not at my university . . . I am very thankful."