End of year is time for reflection. As I think about the numerous columns I have written this year in this space on the poor state of solid waste management and the lack of safe disposal of the waste that we generate in our cities, I cannot help but think that the problem arises because the public does not realise that lapses in waste management (garbage disposal as well as sewage treatment) are directly connected with the incidence of disease. Otherwise, why would we regard this as someone else’s problem to solve?
I also feel strongly that the basic fault lies with the middle and upper-income classes who ought to recognise their critical role in the solid waste management chain and live up to it. The poor cannot be blamed because they may lack knowledge and also have very little choice. They accept the poor delivery of public services of all kinds as a fait accompli, for example, having to live in unhygienic conditions with or without access to toilets and no sewerage connectivity and to buy water from private tankers at exorbitant rates.
The middle classes and the upper-income households, on the other hand, ought to know better and behave responsibly and collectively to ensure a clean and healthy environment for themselves. This group typically dumps their unsegregated mixed waste at community bins and looks away. Their attitude derives from a traditional approach of opting for private solutions to public service delivery failures. For example, intermittent public delivery of water to households can be converted to a 24 x 7 delivery situation by households investing in underground tanks, booster pumps and overhead tanks.
Since poor solid waste management does not lend itself to individual private solutions, the unsegregated waste from the households lies rotting at community bins, street corners and even in nullahs (storm water drains) for weeks or months before it is transported to landfill sites, which are mostly used only as dumpsites. The public health challenge is compounded by the huge deficiencies in the sewerage and drainage networks.
The Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 clearly state that every waste generator which includes every household, “shall segregate waste and store separately and hand over to Municipal workers or Authorized waste pickers.” The Rules also specify that municipal governments have to make door-to-door collection of segregated waste — wet, dry and hazardous. Even though three-fourth of the municipal budget on solid waste management goes into collection and transportation, most municipalities actually make only “secondary” collection of mixed waste from community bins, while door-to-door collection is either outsourced to private agencies and/or NGOs or rests with resident welfare associations who hire private waste pickers for collection of unsegregated waste from door to door.
If the top third of the urban population would give the lead in handing over segregated waste for collection at their doorstep to authorised (private or municipal) waste pickers, the municipal governments can concentrate on the task of processing the different streams of waste for resource recovery in a manner which will be financially and environmentally sustainable.
As I have pointed out in many columns, the wet waste or biodegradable waste (which is close to 60 per cent of India’s municipal solid waste) can be processed locally for composting and/or biomethanation. This local processing must be done by the municipality or in public-private partnership. Imagine the saving on transport cost if wet waste did not have to be hauled over long distances but was processed in decentralised units. Compost provides a significant supplement to chemical fertilisers because it replenishes nutrient-depleted soils. Biomethanation generates biogas which is an excellent fuel, and also manure, which is an input for improving soil fertility.
As for dry waste, the Solid Waste Management Rules 2016 have reduced considerably the burden and simplified the challenge of managing municipal solid waste for the urban local governments by taking construction and demolition waste out of the definition of municipal waste and specifying separate Rules for the disposal of this waste. Since Indian households typically sell their recyclable waste such as paper, plastic, glass, metals, etc, to kabadiwallahs for recycling, what is left of the municipal solid waste for landfills (after safe disposal of domestic hazardous and biomedical waste) will be only about a quarter of the total solid waste that is generated in our cities, that is, 16-18 million tonnes out of a total of 64-70 million tonnes annually.
Possibilities for producing RDF and/or incineration out of this residual waste will depend on the calorific content of this waste. While incineration offers a last-mile solution after reduction, segregation, and recycling, the incineration plants can emit toxic gases in the air if they are not equipped with appropriate filters. Effective mechanisms for monitoring the emissions from these plants and enforcing the standards must be in place before such plants are set up, and resident welfare associations will have to be watchful that the regulations are enforced. The resident welfare associations must play a leadership role in ensuring that waste is segregated and collected in conformity with the SWM Rules 2016. They have the ability to persuade municipalities to pursue the path of segregation and they will be morally in a strong position to demand greater accountability from the government. Penalties for non-segregation need to be notified by the municipal governments and enforced on erring households if this is to work. The resident welfare associations can lend their moral support to the enforcement.
Behaviour change is not easy to accomplish. A policymaker from Singapore in the field of solid waste management once told me that they believe it takes three generations to bring about sustained behaviour change. It is for this reason that they have a massive awareness campaign to inculcate the right practices for effective solid waste management. In India, the challenge is even greater because, in the middle to higher income households, the waste is handled by domestic staff rather than the home-makers themselves. So, you need to be aware of the importance of segregation of waste but you also need to be vigilant that the instructions for keeping the wastes separate are carried out.
The Swachh Bharat Mission must emphasise more the importance of segregation of wet waste from dry waste. A deeply worrying development in this respect is that a number of municipal governments are using compactors to compress the mixed waste before hauling it to the landfill sites. The compacted mixed waste is no good for biomethanation. The biodegradable content in the unsegregated waste leads to higher moisture content and lower calorific value, thus also making it less suitable for waste to energy conversion. And the presence of wet waste in the garbage hills at the dumpsites generates leachate which contaminates groundwater in the area and also methane which is a potent greenhouse gas.
The awareness campaign for Swachh Bharat must also highlight the link between Swachh Bharat and Swastha Bharat. By removing the garbage out of sight, we do not take care of the problem. As our cities expand, the garbage hills that we have created at the landfill sites on the outskirts of our cities get closer and closer, and so does the danger to our health. These columns have provided examples of how bioremediation and biomining are the solutions to the challenge posed by the legacy of accumulated unsegregated waste at our landfill sites. This column shows how we can collectively reduce the challenge of managing the solid waste flows that we generate currently by beginning to segregate at home.
The writer is chairperson, ICRIER, Delhi, and former chairperson of the high-powered expert committee on urban infrastructure and services