Few people realise how close we are to being choked by our own garbage. The generation of garbage in our cities has been growing and projections for the years ahead are frightening. Delhi, for example, generates close to 9,000 tonnes of garbage per day and does not have the capacity to handle this waste scientifically and safely.
Ideally, municipal solid waste (MSW) should be segregated into wet waste (biodegradable, that is, kitchen waste), dry waste (such as paper, plastic, glass, metal etc. some of which is recyclable), and hazardous waste which needs separate treatment. If this were done, the wet waste can be processed into compostable products, the recyclable material can be picked by ragpickers and sent for recycling, and the irreducible minimum waste can be sent to scientifically engineered landfills.
The garbage menace in urban India is not limited to what meets the eye, that is, bulging community bins, rubbish piled on street corners sometimes left for days in open spaces to rot and pollute, and garbage strewn over stormwater drains. Some cities have partially implemented door-to- door collection with the help of resident welfare associations and outsourced private agencies to take the waste to the community bins. More generally, the waste is dumped unsegregated into the community bins. It is then collected from these bins and slowly finds its way — through transportation over long distances to its final destination — the so-called landfills which are actually “land hills” of rubbish. These dumpsites were originally located outside of the cities and towns, but with cities pushing their peripheries, the land hills of garbage have moved closer, and so has the danger to our health.
Garbage left rotting in the open breeds germs, and germs are not deterred by the boundary walls of our homes. The lack of adequate realisation on the part of Indian city dwellers of the public health consequences of the deteriorating management of MSW is hard to comprehend.
India’s urban population of 377 million generates an estimated 62 million tonnes of MSW per year, based on the assumption that 450 gm of solid waste is generated on average by an urban person per day. Bigger and richer cities produce more waste than smaller ones. Of the total MSW, about 80 per cent is “collected” from community bins, of which 25 per cent or so is processed and treated, and the rest is simply dumped at the disposal sites. About half of MSW is wet waste, another 18 per cent is dry waste, and 30-35 per cent is inert and debris.
Plastic waste has been increasing at the rate of 2.5 times the GDP growth and it is projected to increase at a faster pace with its increased use for packaging, shopping bags, industrial products and building materials. About 70 per cent of the plastic packaging products turn into plastic waste within a short period, and the recycling and disposal of plastic poses a huge challenge.
Official projections suggest that with faster growth and rapid urbanisation, our cities will be generating MSW to the tune of 160-165 million tonnes — more than two-and-a-half times the present level — by 2030. Management of such a large volume of waste with its changing composition will require a scientific approach, not business as usual. Reduction, reuse, recycling, recovery and scientific disposal will have to be at the centre of a new strategy of solid waste management.
When we are made aware of the problem, we get distracted into apportioning blame and do not explore solutions based on what has worked in other Indian cities and how they can be adapted or replicated. With politicians and bureaucrats as easy targets, we forget that the problem is as much due to our own lack of civic sense. We do not segregate waste at home, mixing our kitchen waste with discarded paper, plastic, glass and whatever else including old batteries, which makes the task of managing this mixed waste that much more challenging for the municipal government.
Some of the best practices in municipal solid waste management, that is, in Rajkot, Pammal and Pune, were reported earlier in this column. These cities focused on reducing waste, and on segregation of wet waste from dry waste at the source. They also resorted to resource recovery through composting and/or biomethanation.
Segregation of waste at the source, recycling by involving the informal sector, decentralised processing for resource recovery through composting and biomethanation, and landfills as repositories of the last resort emerge as important components of possible solutions in its analysis.
JNNURM, a national urban renewal programme, required urban planners and managers to improve the state of service delivery including solid waste management. Successor programmes like Swacch Bharat and AMRUT, launched in 2014, are taking this forward by addressing the challenge of water and sanitation. In order to succeed, the successor programmes must learn from the experience of JNNURM — why was it that out of 42 projects sanctioned for solid waste management, only 12 were completed?
If properly implemented, the new SWM Rules will definitely put us on the right track. They make it mandatory for local authorities to arrange door-to-door collection of segregated solid waste, distinguishing wet waste, dry waste and hazardous waste. The authority must prescribe a user fee to be paid by the waste generator and arrange for the collection of the waste and its transport to a centre where the waste can be distributed into different processing streams. This would greatly reduce the residual waste that must be sent to the landfills. So far so good, but the challenge lies in getting these rules implemented.
Perhaps, as a first step, all state capitals and the 100 smart cities should be tasked with chalking out a comprehensive plan for waste management, taking into account the increase in waste that is expected. These plans should be finalised within one year and then monitored carefully to serve as examples for the rest of the country. Since behaviour change at the household level is crucial to achieve segregation at source, active involvement of NGOs and resident welfare associations is critical.
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