Dealing with urban waste

Pushpa leads the struggle against Bhalaswa landfill that contaminates Delhi's groundwater.
Pushpa leads the struggle against Bhalaswa landfill that contaminates Delhi's groundwater.

When it comes to managing huge piles of waste, Indian metros have a monumental task in hand. As per 2011 figures, Delhi is the biggest waste generator with 6800 tonnes of waste being produced daily. Lessons from other countries show that these mountains of waste will only grow bigger as India gets richer. And with this, how we manage our waste is going to change as well.

The Central Pollution Control Board pegs the country’s waste generation at 52 million tonnes a year in 2016. Given the lifestyle transitions, the composition of waste too is changing. Not in my backyard, a new book by Delhi-based NGO Centre for Science and Environment attempts to highlight the present status of solid waste management in the country and what should be the way ahead.

The book deals with how we need to reinvent waste management in our country. It makes a note of the human element of the informal sector--the only saving grace in our waste management system. Millions of ‘invisible’ workers--ragpickers and kabadiwallas (waste collectors)--continue to work on our waste recycling and management. “The informal sector forms an important part in the recycling chain, preventing our cities from drowning in their waste,” the book says.

Clearly, our municipal waste services do not have the capacity to operate a recycling system. Our landfills are becoming colossal and the land to dispose the waste is shrinking. This is prompting some cities to go for the ‘magic’ solution of converting waste to energy. The book highlights the lack of effectiveness of these solutions and encourages us to look beyond our present focus on disposal of waste. 

Waste management must aim for a zero landfill future. And for this, the case of United States and some countries of the European Union, where waste disposal is charged for, ensuring utilisation over dumping, is cited in the book. The book also stresses on the need to segregate waste at its source. The urban local bodies should take the responsibility to ensure compliance on this as our waste management story would remain tragic in its absence.

The book points that while the poor do not generate as much garbage as the affluent, they bear the brunt of it because the solid waste often end up in their backyards as most landfills are tucked  away from the urban centres. Most of the Indian cities are brushing their waste under the carpet and their underdeveloped public waste management services have become severely stressed. However, the book highlights cases like Alleppey, Bobbili, Panaji, Aizawl, Mysuru and Pune that have achieved various levels of segregation, recycling, reduction and reuse.

The book shares case studies from the cities that have been able to resolve the issue of solid waste management. It categorises Indian cities into the best, the mediocre and the worst performers with regards to waste management. Alleppey in Kerala was ranked first in CSE’s survey of Indian cities for being able to successfully manage solid waste through community participation. In Alleppey, the withdrawal of the municipality from waste management forced the people to segregate and compost what they can. The five-way segregation system in place in Panaji, Goa is also discussed as a model which other cities can emulate.

The challenge of managing waste efficiently and sustainably is going to rest on a horde of factors, be it legislation or finance. While, our legal system has risen to the challenge of waste management three decades ago, laws and their implementation need to be strengthened, the book says. Public policy and regulations on waste management are not enough. “Urban local bodies have to be intelligent about waste finance and treat garbage as a resource, not waste. Private players entering different levels of the management stream need to be made accountable,” the book points out.

Finally, because garbage is about municipal finances, the book suggests the need to “impose a user fee and also penalties for non-compliance and littering” so municipalities do not have to struggle to pay for the service.

Post By: Amita Bhaduri