Hyperconsumption is a curse of our modern times. Humans generate monumental amounts of waste, a sizeable portion of which is disposed in landfills and through waste-to-energy incinerators. However, billions of tonnes of garbage, including microplastics, never make it to landfills or incinerators and end up in the oceans. This garbage chokes marine life and disturbs zooplankton, which are vital to the elimination of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.

Landfills are seedbeds of methane and other greenhouse gases, which contribute to global warming. These toxic chemicals poison the soil and their leached run-off makes its way into the oceans. And while they do generate energy, waste incinerators cause health issues such as cancer. In India, nearly 60% of the household waste is wet organic waste, with low calorific value. This makes options such as waste-to-energy incinerators inefficient. We need to design incinerators that are suited to Indian conditions.

It does seem overwhelming, but there are solutions to the garbage pandemic through the crucial processes of material recycling and composting. Efficient composting is possible through an optimal combination of microbes and temperature to produce a nutrient-dense soil conditioner.

In India, less than 60% of waste is collected from households and only 15% of urban waste is processed.

  • Waste Management in India falls under the purview of the Union Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change (MoEF&CC). In 2016 this ministry released the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016, these rules replaced the Municipal Solid Wastes (Management and Handling) Rules, 2000 which had been in place for 16 years.
  • Urban India (about 377 million people) generates 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste each year, of this about 43 million tonnes (70%) is collected and 11.9 million tonnes (20%) is treated. About 31 million tonnes (50%) is dumped in landfill sites.
  • With changing consumption patterns and rapid economic growth it is estimated that urban municipal solid waste generation will increase to 165 million tonnes in 2030.
  • 62 million tonnes annually averages out to 450 grams of waste per person per day. However, there is a lot of variability in per capita waste generation in India, daily household municipal solid waste (MSW) generation ranges from 170 grams per person in small towns to 620 grams per person in large cities.
  • A 2007 study of Indian metro cities (cities with a population of over 1 million inhabitants) estimates MSW composition (by weight) to be 41% organic or biodegradable, 40% inert, 6% paper, 4% plastic, 4% textiles, 2% glass, 2% metals and 1% leather.
  • According to a 2014 India Planning Commission MSW study 51% of MSW is organic or biodegradable, 32% is inert or non-organic and 17% is recyclable waste.

Several problems associated with waste treatment

  • First, segregation of waste into organic, recyclable and hazardous categories is not enforced at source. As a result, mixed waste lands up in the landfills, where waste-pickers, in hazardous conditions, try to salvage the recyclables, which are of poor quality and quantity by then.
  • Second, ideally, waste management should not be offered free of cost to residents. Only if residents pay will they realise the importance of segregation and recycling.
  • Third, there is the issue of logistical contractors who are motivated to dump more garbage in landfills as their compensation is proportional to the tonnage of waste. They are also prone to illegally dump waste at unauthorised sites to reduce transportation costs.
  • Fourth, and importantly, organic farming and composting are not economically attractive to the Indian farmer, as chemical pesticides are heavily subsidised, and the compost is not efficiently marketed.

Some of the highlights of the Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 are:

  • Waste segregation at source is mandatory. Waste generators have to segregate waste into three streams – Organic or Biodegradable waste, Dry waste (Plastic, Paper, Metal, Wood, etc.) and Domestic Hazardous waste (diapers, napkins, mosquito repellants, cleaning agents etc.). Further, bulk waste generators such as hotels, hospitals etc. are expected to treat organic waste either onsite or by collaborating with the urban local body.
  • Municipalities and urban local bodies have been directed to include informal waste pickers and rag pickers into their waste management process. This is the first time that national policy has acknowledged and included the informal sector into the waste management process. India has over 1.5 Million subsistence informal waste pickers and including them into the formal waste management system represents an opportunity for urban local bodies to streamline their operations, while provide the waste pickers with better income opportunities.
  • FMCG product manufacturers that use non-biodegradable packaging for their products must put in place a system to collect the packaging waste generated due to their production.
  • Urban local bodies have been given a provision to charge bulk generators a user fee to collect and process their waste, additionally spot fines may be levied on user’s burning garbage or throwing it in a public place.
  • No non-recyclable waste having a calorific value of 1,500 Kcal/kg or more should be disposed in the landfills. It should either be utilized for generating energy or can be used for preparing refuse derived fuel. Or it can be used for co-processing in cement or thermal power plants.

But a more comprehensive policy that includes all types of wastes should be introduced and waste management system needs to incentivized to realize the true motive behind Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and keep the country clean and healthy.