In a span of a few months, COVID-19 has hit the world severely. At the same time, the water bodies are seeing more life, smog is giving way to blue skies, the air has become cleaner and many forms of pollution have plunged. However, coronavirus waste has emerged as a new form of pollution. People are adapting to a new world where wearing masks, gloves and single-use personal protective equipment have become a norm.
The global pandemic has altered the activities of the world including that of industries where waste generation had already been very significant for years. The demand for various online products has increased tremendously in the past few months and therefore more wastes, mainly packaging wastes made of plastics, papers, cardboard etc. are being produced.
A talk by Prof Brajesh Kumar Dubey, Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur at #PlanetTalks organised by Impact Policy Research Institute and India Water Portal dealt with approaches, best practices and technologies related to waste management and provides recommendations for policy-makers and practitioners.
India's waste challenge
As per World Bank data, over 1.3 billion Indians generate a tenth of the world’s waste - the highest amount of waste anywhere in the world. “Every year the world produces 2.01 billion tonnes of municipal wastes, which may rise to 3.4 billion tonnes by 2050 due to rapid urbanisation, population growth and economic development,” says Prof Dubey.
Our megacities like Mumbai and Delhi are sitting on a pile of waste, while issues like waste management are being overlooked by governments. A parliamentary committee in its report in 2018 noted: “the laissez-faire of the civic bodies of Delhi also gets reflected in the fact that the height of Ghazipur landfill site has reached as high as 65 metres which is just eight metres less than the height of the national monument Qutub Minar.”
In India, just about 75- 80% of the municipal waste gets collected and of this growing tide of waste barely 22-28% is processed and treated, while the rest is merely transported to the suburbs and disposed of arbitrarily. Segregation of waste components should be encouraged at source, as per the Municipal Solid Waste Rules of 2016, yet cities continue to dump the waste indiscriminately, requiring more and more lands for landfill.
“It is often difficult to find a facility that can manage mixed wastes that are received at the treatment plants. We could start with the separation of ‘wet’ waste i.e. food wastes and other organic wastes from the rest i.e. non-biodegradable wastes, which include plastics, glass, metals etc.,” says Prof Dubey making a case for ensuring segregation at source and resource recovery.
He was of the view that India with its massive waste management challenge has the technological potential to treat the waste, but we are faced with a flawed system of waste disposal and management. The implementation of the waste management rules especially concerning regulating the manner of disposal and dealing with generated waste has failed. “There are many engineered landfills and material recovery facilities in our country. But their requirements, as well as numbers, depends on the quality of waste data collected. A waste audit is an inevitable part of waste management and gives an idea about the type and amount of waste generated from industries, households, institutions etc.,” he says.
While it is true that organic waste needs to be diverted from landfill sites to composting practices, the characteristics of the waste determine what it can be transformed into. “This also defines whether an area requires waste to energy plant or a compost plant. Even though there are a few compost and vermicompost units, bio-methanation plants, refuse-derived fuel plants and waste to energy plants, most of them find it difficult to treat the waste, since much of the garbage reaching the plants are composed of both wet and dry wastes. There lies the importance of segregation at source,” he adds.
The government has recommended smart solutions for waste management - collection, transportation and disposal of waste, yet no serious attempts are being made in its implementation. Our cities are becoming increasingly unhealthy and polluted barring some small and mid-level cities which are more efficient in managing waste, according to a 2018 report released on 20 cities across 10 states by the Delhi-based Centre for Science and Environment.
“Cities like Visakhapatnam, Alleppey, Kolkata have devised smart solutions for waste management where the bio-degradable wastes are sent to composting units and bio-methanation plants, while non-biodegradable are sent to waste to energy plants,” says Dubey.
The waste management system involves various stages, which starts with the identification of wastes, its properties, reviewing existing systems, modification of existing systems if required, identifying potential components of waste treatment and its implementation. “Whenever a product is manufactured, its effect on the environment needs to be analysed using life cycle analysis. This gives an idea about its environmental footprint based on its performance till its lifespan gets over. Educating people about waste segregation is important for its better management,” he says.
The type of treatment varies from place to place based on the type of waste generated. In the waste to energy sector, almost 50% of treatment plants are non-functional. “This is because most of the wastes received by the treatment facilities are mixed wastes, which require additional manpower to segregate into wet and dry wastes. These are treated separately, as dry can be recycled, while wet waste can be composted. It is unlikely that the facility will be able to treat both the wastes as it could create environmental and aesthetic problems,” says Dubey.
Recent researches explain the idea of a circular economy, one of which describes the combination of organic wastes like yard wastes and food wastes using hydrothermal carbonization (HTC) reactor resulting in the formation of fuel pellets, which can be used as a substitute for coal as well as activated carbon. This is a pathbreaking development. Also, once the water is extracted from the food waste while treating it inside the HTC reactor, it can be taken to an anaerobic digester, which produces gas, which can act as a fuel source.
Prof Dubey pointed to the problem of growing plastic pollution in wake of COVID-19. There has been a sudden rise in pollution from the daily use of certain products such as disposable products like plastic face masks, gloves and hand sanitiser bottles to keep people safe. This sudden change of lifestyle and the spurt in panic buying, online shopping and takeout services during the pandemic has resulted in the generation of more plastic wastes than before. Also, plastic recycling facilities have not been open during the lockdown period, which aggravated the intensity of the problem. Reports reveal that the people dispose of masks and gloves irresponsibly after its use, creating a hazard to both humans and the environment.
“Hospitals have been directed to follow the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) guidelines for the biomedical wastes. These wastes which cannot be recycled are supposed to be burnt in a controlled environment. Incineration technique is best suited for this. The rest which can be recycled is sterilised using autoclave, thereby reducing its harmful effects,” says Prof Dubey. The wastes from hospitals and quarantine centres need to be managed separately as per the provisions of bio-medical waste management.
He stressed on the need for having a comprehensive and sustainable waste reduction and recycling programme as well as ensuring some level of enforcement of the waste management bye-laws.
Image: Roksana Helscher, Pixabay