As large piles of garbage dot the streets and the city’s dumping grounds overflow with a colourful mixture of its residents’ discards, waste management continues to be one of Mumbai’s most serious problems.
Segregation of garbage at source into dry and wet waste, a standard international practice, could have helped the Brihanmumbai Muncipal Corporation (BMC) handle the city’s refuse more efficiently — drastically reducing the amount that needs to be dumped at landfills, and promoting micro-management of waste at housing societies, schools and hospitals.
Instead, 13 years after the Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) Rules made it mandatory for local municipal bodies to enforce segregation at source, data shows that a paltry 10-15% of Mumbai’s daily garbage is actually separated — and even this is often mixed up again in community garbage bins or vehicles that transport it to dumping grounds.
The BMC’s environment status report for 2011-12 pegs the waste generated in the city every day at 9,200 metric tonnes. Of this, about 15% lies uncollected for want of resources.
“The need of the hour is to decentralise waste management,” said Shyam R Asolekar, professor, Centre for Environmental Science and Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology, IIT-Bombay.
“This will serve the macro purpose of increasing the life span of the landfills as we will be dumping less; at a micro level, biodegradable waste can be used to yield compost.”
The BMC’s inability to segregate effectively means that it is spending a large part of the Rs900 crore allotted for waste collection on sending biodegradable and recyclable waste to landfills, which when mixed with inert material becomes useless.
“When the BMC knows that a majority of the municipal solid waste comprises biodegradable and recyclable material, why are we adopting land- and cost-intensive methods?” said Rishi Agarwal, environmental activist and policy advocate.
“We ferry huge amounts of waste in diesel-guzzling compactors that add to air pollution. The BMC has not even run a decent public awareness campaign on segregation.”
An all-round lack of initiative is visible in that few citizens, housing societies and commercial establishments make separating waste a priority.
“In the past five years or so, having wet and dry waste bins has become a habit at some homes. But eventually, inside community bins, it gets mixed again. Regardless, people should still continue to segregate as much waste as they can,” said Kalpesh Sawant, 25, a resident of Kanjurmarg.
The only noticeable segregation takes place right at the end, when ragpickers sift through garbage, looking for anything that can be recycled. Those affiliated to co-operative ragpickers’ unions, and some who work for contractors individually, sift through huge mounds of refuse to fish out paper, plastic, cardboard and other items that can be reused from near dumping grounds or at slum colonies near landfills.
These are sold to scrap dealers, who provide ragpickers with a livelihood. But their job becomes more laborious when a large amount of recyclable waste is dirtied by biodegradable waste.
The BMC’s solid waste management policies are do not keep the long run in mind, say experts. “The current policies are neither socially or scientifically acceptable, nor are they sustainable,” said Asolekar.
“A lot of energy has been put into developing technology-oriented solutions, but the mixed approach of involving people with technology has been ignored.”
Civic officials admitted that since one common technology has not yielded results, the BMC has spent time trying to learn by trial-and-error. Prakash Patil, deputy municipal commissioner (solid waste management) said: “The BMC is drawing up micro-level plans to decentralise waste management, and testing new technologies.
"We are looking at waste-to-energy projects, which will also get funding under the Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission.”
There’s no land at the landfills
With no place to deposit the silt cleared from the city’s nullahs and before the 2012 monsoon, the BMC had to turn to the newly-opened Kanjur Marg dumping ground.
The old ones at Deonar and Mulund were already brimming with solid waste.
The silt was taken to Mumbai’s newest, “scientific landfill” (it has one tiny bio-reactor) from May onwards. Within two months, the site was overburdened and unable to handle the load.
The stench from the landfill had residents — from even as far as Ghatkopar — running for cover. The four hectare site took in 100 metric tonnes of silt, which grew to 500 metric tonnes, and then 2,000 metric tonnes in two months.
The plight of Mumbai’s landfills is simple: they are filling up fast and there’s hardly any space left for waste.
The Deonar dumping ground has been exhausted many times over, the Gorai one was shut down, the one in Mulund is nearing its intake capacity and the one-year-old Kanjurmarg landfill has been plagued by a set of operational and pollution issues.
Prakash Patil, deputy municipal commissioner (solid waste management) said, “Contractors associated with these landfills claim that because of the absence of valid land lease agreements, they have not been getting enough funds for the waste processing projects”.
Experts said the BMC should change its thrust on technology as a way to process waste, and focus on more basic methods instead. “If a majority of the garbage generated is organic, it should not go to landfills.
"The BMC needs to draw up a policy to micro-manage organic waste,” said Shyam Asolekar, professor, centre for science and engineering, Indian Institute of Technology-Bombay.
According to members of the technical advisory committee (TAC) that the BMC appointed to recommend ways to improve conditions at the landfills, the situation is “grim and needs a complete overhaul”.
“At Deonar, garbage has been dumped on bare land for several years. We suggested that BMC goes in for bio-mining in which old garbage is excavated, sieved, sorted and productive components are separated from hazardous ones,” said Rakesh Kumar, head scientist, National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) who is part of the TAC. “The idea is to clear up space and start capping the big mounds.”
At the Kanjurmarg landfill, members were aghast at the air pollution and odour, and the complete lack of preparedness in terms of handling huge amounts of waste.
“The site was a salt pan, so the ground is slushy. No geo-technical study was carried out to understand the impact of dumping and leaching on the ground,” said a member requesting anonymity.