A garbage tsunami is engulfing our cities

People from Mumbai will tell you about the big fire that raged for days at the Deonar landfill in 2016. Any Delhi resident will be able to point you to the Ghazipur landfill, one of the city’s landmarks now. Across any Indian city today, landfills have become landmarks and directional markers – simply because of their sheer size – and topics of conversation.

Cities in India produce 62 million tonnes of garbage every year. 43 million tonnes of this is solid waste, the vast bulk of which doesn’t get treated and ends up at landfills, clogging space, leaching pollutants into groundwater, polluting the air, and turning into fire, sanitation and safety hazards.

The World Bank projects India’s daily waste generation to touch 377,000 tonnes by 2025. And with more and more people migrating to urban India, the majority of India’s waste generation will happen in cities. Our landfills – already stretched way past their limits – are not equipped to handle even a fraction of this waste anymore. The implications for public health are staggeringly dangerous as are the social issues managing such obscenely large amounts of waste presents. When you add to this the harm we are causing to our environment, we are looking at a crisis on a scale so unprecedented that even the most drastic of measures will seem like spitting in the wind to put out a fire.

The Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan has been focussed on building toilets and proclaiming village after village ODF-free, but the ground reality is that any cleanliness campaign cannot succeed unless we have a large-scale, holistic, waste management policy which citizens, corporates and all stakeholders abide by religiously.

Let us take a peek under the proverbial rug to examine the ground realities in our original four metros. Mumbai generates more than 10,000 metric tonnes of waste every day. It has three landfills to manage this waste with garbage piled up 5 stories high. Delhi generates close to 9000 metric tonnes of garbage daily with three landfills which are past or close to their limits already. Chennai has two landfills to manage the city’s close to 5000 metric tonnes of daily waste.

Kolkata has two saturated landfills straining to deal with 4000 metric tonnes of waste every day. If you include Bengaluru, Pune and Hyderabad, we have more than 40,000 metric tonnes of waste being generated every day in our cities with little to no waste management being practised.

Most of these landfills still burn waste which, apart from being completely unscientific, is a significant reason for the unhealthy air quality we’ve been witnessing across India for far too long. Composting is practised in some places, but the ability of these plants to compost is hugely disproportionate with how much waste they’re expected to process. Kolkata, for example, has a compost plant at the Dhapa landfill which can process up to 500 tonnes daily, a fifth of what it should be processing. The proportion of waste that gets recycled at these landfills is also negligible. In Delhi, for example, experts believe up to 50% of waste can be composted, and 30% can be recycled, but less than half the waste even gets treated.

Over the last three years, there have been several municipal regulations implemented across urban India to ensure waste segregation and treatment at source – failure to comply invites stringent penalties. However, irrespective of the municipal body concerned, regulations still continue to be loosely interpreted at best and outright flouted at worst.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Countries like Sweden and South Korea have shown how efficient waste management can process waste and keep cities clean; it can also become a revenue opportunity worth billions of dollars. Countries like Sri Lanka and Bhutan have shown how individuals can contribute by being conscious of the waste they generate and by disposing of it responsibly. Even countries like Brazil are working on solutions, having already demonstrated how to conquer the urban sanitation demon.

But our cities don’t need to look that far either. Indore is quite an inspiration. Ranked 25 in the cleanliness survey in 2016, Indore has always topped the charts since then. New toilets, more trash bins, live monitoring of garbage vans are some of the outward changes Indore has affected in her push to become India’s cleanest city. But government bodies alone can’t change a city. People need to change too. And this is where Indore wins big time. In three years, it’s become a city where everybody segregates their wet and dry waste. And all of the 1100+ metric tonnes of waste Indore generates every day is treated. What can be composted is composted. What can be recycled is recycled.

Even the 148-acre landfill that Indore had was cleared using biomining and bioremediation and scientifically rebuilt, and that now holds 5% of the dry waste that cannot be processed any further. Indore isn’t stopping at this though. They want to become even cleaner. They’ve set up compost pits at 585 municipal gardens across the city and are now encouraging people to start composting at home too, with 30,000 families already on-board.

Is a Swachh Bharat truly possible? Yes. But it will be possible only when we the people work hand in hand with the government and understand and accept our role in keeping our nation clean and our people free of illness. A combination of good governance and oversight.

I’m very keen to know your thoughts on our landfill crisis. What are you doing at the grassroots level – in your home, your housing society, your office complex to stem the tsunami? If you’d like to implement a plan, but don’t know how, write in to me.

This post originally appeared on LinkedIn Pulse