Segregation at source should be at the heart of India’s solid waste management system
It would not be wrong to say that most Indian cities suffer from problems emanating from either bad or non-existent waste management. If you travel from central Delhi towards Ghazipur in the city’s east, the first warning that you get of the approaching landfill is the sight of circling birds of prey. Smoke rises steadily from the pile, as the decomposing waste generates highly combustible methane gas. This year, Mumbai saw a huge fire in the Deonar landfill. In a significant and timely order, the National Green Tribunal (NGT) on Thursday imposed a ban on burning of waste in open places across the country and announced a fine of Rs 25,000 on each incident of bulk waste burning. While directing every state and Union territory to enforce and implement Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, the green panel also asked the Union environment ministry and all states to pass appropriate directions in relation to the ban on short-life Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and chlorinated plastics within a period of six months.
Experts believe that India is following a flawed system of waste disposal and management. In an article in Down to Earth, director general of the Centre for Science and Environment Sunita Narain wrote that there is a need to reinvent garbage management in our cities so that we can process waste and not “landfill” it. To do this, households and institutions must segregate their waste at source so that it could be managed as a resource. It also means that citizens need to limit how much is dumped by imposing a tax on landfill. By this reinvention, Ms Narain meant that we need to incorporate and not negate the role of the informal recycling industry in waste management. What is not recognised is that this trade, happening in the backyards of slums and shoved aside by policy, is the only thing saving cities from drowning in waste. It is also this trade which ensures that less waste reaches landfills. Second, we also need to accept that waste management costs. But currently municipalities hardly charge for this service. It is also clear that households must be made to pay for the amount of waste they generate and penalised if the waste is not segregated.
With rapid urbanisation, the country is faced with a massive waste management challenge. Over 377 million urban people -- 31% of the population -- live in 7,935 towns and cities and generate 62 million tonnes of municipal solid waste per annum. Only 43 million tonne is collected, 11.9 million is treated and 31 million tonne is dumped in landfill sites. Waste generation is estimated to reach 165 million tonne per year by 2030. Segregation at source is the only way to remedy this problem.