India’s gigantic problem of solid waste

Solid waste management is one of the most significant problems the Indian government is trying to deal with. In the last two decades, India has witnessed tremendous growth in social and economic sectors. In parallel, the Indian population has grown exponentially too, from 1.028 billion in 2001 to 1.252 billion in 2013. This population growth has seen an increasingly larger population concentration in urban areas due to the availability of more employment sources. With the globalisation of the economy and technology development, cities like Mumbai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, to name a few, have become megacities with larger populations than most small towns and rural areas of India.

This growing population has resulted in the massive production of solid waste. Despite a considerable development in social and economic sectors, solid waste management (SWM) systems in India have have not kept up with the challenge and remain relatively rudimentary. As a result, around 90 percent of waste is currently dumped rather than adequately landfilled.

Production of solid waste reflects the living standards, eating habits and seasonal changes and in the last few years, India has seen a tremendous transformation in each of these aspects. Economic classes have a significant impact on waste production as higher income groups are more likely to use packaged products, resulting in a substantial quantity of waste generated in the form of packaging bags, glass, metals and textiles along with compostable materials like left-overs of vegetables and fruits.

Waste produced in urban areas also contain hazardous waste products such as medicines, batteries, colouring products and pesticides. On an average, the municipal solid waste generated in cities is 41 percent organic, around 40 percent inert, with 20 percent potentially recyclable products like plastic, glass and metal objects. According to one estimate, nearly 133,760 tonnes of waste is collectively produced in all major Indian metropolitan cities, which is predicted to increase at the rate of 5 percent, considering the changing lifestyle of the mass population. Out of this humongous quantity of waste produced only 91,152 tonnes are collected, and only 25,884 tonnes is actually treated properly.

Current waste management systems are insufficient and inefficient and solid waste has now started adversely affecting public health and environment in India. Garbage releases methane from anaerobic microbial activities. In open spaces, methane is dangerous due to its combustible nature. When mixed with air, methane becomes explosive. Methane is also one of the greenhouse gases and a primary reason for global warming. Other problems associated with open solid waste are odour formation and leachates escaping into groundwater, one of the most critical sources of drinking water for a vast majority of the Indian population. Odoriferous smells released from waste is another crucial issue in a country like India where the average temperature is mostly above 37 degree Celsius.

Dumped tires and other garbage collect water, and this stagnant water becomes a breeding house of mosquitoes, increasing risks of vector-borne diseases like dengue and malaria. Municipal waste management workers still manage garbage by burning it openly. In just Mumbai, every year, around 22,000 tonnes of pollutants are released in the air by burning tyres. This approach of dealing with solid waste is hazardous as it releases fine particles along with some toxic gases that have potential to cause many respiratory disorders. Burning garbage also leads to the formation of smog which is again dangerous to the public health. The effects of our pitiable waste management system are well reported with increased incidences of inflammation, allergies, respiratory tract infections, reduced immunity, asthmas, breathing difficulties and other diseases.

It is urgent and imperative that India needs more sustainable ways to manage solid waste.

The infrastructure of SWM plays a vital role in maintaining sustainable development of any country. Germany is today one of the leading countries in the world with an exceptionally efficient solid waste management systems. In 1950, Germany had around 50,000 landfills. However, today that number is reduced to just 300 landfills that do not accept unsorted garbage. In 2005, the German government wholly banned traditional garbage dumps and replaced them with a sophisticated system, which runs on recycling solid waste.

Germany managed to reach this point by changing their attitude to see solid waste not as garbage but as a business opportunity. Currently, Germany annually saves €3.7 billion from recycling and energy generated from waste. Their waste processing units help them save three percent cost of energy imports along with 20 percent cost of metals.

The German approach to treat waste as potential resources can help India in our battle against the management of waste produced each day. Our rapid population growth is putting a severe strain on natural resources in India. As a result, prices of natural oil and gas are on the rise. With active solid waste management systems, India would be able the extract resources like energy and nutrients from the garbage which will ensure more efficient use of energy resources and also open up new employment avenues.

Traditionally, we have been a nation of recyclers. Whether it is wearing the elder sibling’s hand-me-downs or jewellery passed down through generations or even eating leftovers from the previous day, we practise recycling in our everyday lives without batting an eyelid. We merely need to apply this same perspective to waste. And India has the technology to extract resources from solid waste. The challenge is that this technology is not operationally spread across the nation.

What India needs is more investment in the solid waste management sectors. The transformation of waste into resources is directly dependent on a coordinated set of actions such as the development of markets and increasing recovery of recyclable as well as reusable products. Therefore energy, material and nutrients recovery must be the ultimate target for the sustainable management of solid waste management.

More than 75 percent waste produced in India is recyclable; however, we manage to recycle less than one third. Our government needs to take some firm and resolute action to ensure our solid waste problem comes under control and turns into an opportunity. If change – immediate, large-scale, actionable change – is not brought about soon, we will need landfills larger than our cities themselves to dump all the waste generated in the cities.

The Central Pollution Control Board has reported that merely 15 percent of the waste generated in big cities is appropriately processed or treated. The government needs to push for reformed guidelines for proper waste collection and treatment. The first step to reducing the burden of solid waste generated in India should be segregating domestic waste into inorganic and components. This will reduce the burden on waste management employees and will ensure that waste will be handled correctly. Urban local bodies and private stakeholders are encouraging people to differentiate the trash; however, the result is still unsatisfactory due to limited efforts and absence of follow-through, and yes, apathy among the general population.

Like Germany, there are lessons to be learnt from other countries around the world that have managed successfully to control solid waste. Take the example of the Austrian government who took an innovative approach to domestic waste. They encouraged a local biotech company to develop technology that uses a fungal enzyme to recycle PET plastic. PET plastic is one of the primary components of domestic waste in the form of bottles, packaging materials, etc. The fungal enzymes break down PET into its monomer building blocks, which are then converted into high-value polymers. The process of breaking down PET is entirely natural and does not any harmful by-products.

Belgium is also setting a good example in managing their waste. Along with the comprehensive legislation, Belgium has taken help of two sophisticated waste management techniques, Green Event and Assessment Guide and Ecolizer.

The Green Event and Assessment Guide is a digital tool which helps Belgian organisations reduce the amount of waste generated during their different events. It enables event organisers to calculate the ecological footprint of their activities and helps prevent waste formation during those events. Their website has a list of places that lend reusable cutlery for events and bid to promote eco-friendly businesses. An initiative like this will have an immense impact in India, where every day hundreds of events – weddings, festivals, political gatherings – take place. These events lead to the generation of tremendous waste that local waste management bodies find very hard to manage. Just a simple step like making eco-friendly crockery and cutlery mandatory at all events will make a huge impact.

The second Belgian technology, the Ecolizer, is a web-based calculator build to promote sustainable designs and low waste production that introduces organisations to the environmental impacts of their products. The Ecolizer calculates the impact of processing, transport, energy and waste treatment to find ways of decreasing their effects by changing the design. For example, it is possible to calculate the ecological footprint of a coffee machine by calculating scores of different variables and then making alterations to the design to reduce its environmental impact.

Composting is another waste management practice that can be very useful for an agrarian country like India in many ways. First, it would provide a sustainable solution to manage all waste produced every day. Second, it will save acres and acres from of land that would otherwise become landfills. Lastly, it will provide thousands of Indian farmers with organically rich compost, an alternate for harmful chemical fertilisers. Composting is one the easiest ways of contributing positively to waste management.

Due to its easy methodology, the Indian government has been promoting composting to solve the issue of increasing solid waste. The Ministry of Urban Development had decided to convert all organic waste generated in big cities into compost or biogas by October 2019. This plan also includes taking help from fertiliser companies for promotion. So far though, the plan isn’t succeeding with only 1.6 percent of total waste dumped being composted.

The Indian government has realised the necessity for good Solid Waste Management systems. However, they are approaching the problem with baby steps. This won’t be enough as the time for baby steps is long past. We need radical measures. For a genuinely ‘Swachh Bharat’, solid waste management is the biggest challenge to overcome. Technology has helped in other countries. However, what makes technology work is that people (and organisations) are sensitive to the need for change. While India could do with the technology, without ridding ourselves of individual and collective and corporate apathy, we cannot make much of a difference. And this is why we need the government to mandate waste management as a legal necessity to make it work in India with severe consequences at all levels for failure to comply. It is, unfortunately, a sad truth that we act only when we are forced to.