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Garbage crisis: India’s urban areas must reduce, recycle, rethink

Land is finite and more landfills are no solution to the garbage crisis. Authorities willing, a few Indian cities like Alappuzha, Panaji and Pune can show the way forward.

india Updated: Sep 13, 2017 07:17 IST
Shivani Singh
Shivani Singh
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Waster Management,Landfills,Urban lifestyle
Ashok Kamble and Anita Kamble from SWaCH collects garbage from a housing society at Chandani Chowk in Pune, India, on Saturday, September 9, 2017. The Pune municipal corporation launched a pilot project in 2005, engaging waste­pickers in door-­to-door waste collection.(Pratham Gokhale/HT PHOTO)

When you throw something away, said Annie Leonard, a ‘critic of consumerism’, it must go somewhere. That somewhere — overburdened dumpsites stinking and fuming on the outskirts of our cities — cannot hold anymore.

India’s urban population is growing at 3-3.5% annually. At this rate, the waste generated by Indian cities is expected to increase by 5% every year, estimates the Centre for Science and Environment (CSE). By the government’s own calculation, by 2047, the country will have to find land the size of Delhi every year to dump garbage.

That is an impossibility in an increasingly urbanised and crowded India, which is fast running out of space. Landfills, or even incinerators, are anyway a civic, environmental, public health hazard nobody wants in their backyard.

The only solution is to reduce the load of garbage that requires dumping. That requires minimising waste generation and recycling or processing every possible bit of it.


We don’t need to look far for inspiration. Alappuzha (Kerala) and Panaji (Goa) have no landfills or waste-to-energy plants because they do not need them. Both convert their trash into compost or biogas and recycle plastic, glass, metals and papers, states the CSE, which ranked these two cities at the top in its national survey in 2016.

But in most other cities, garbage processing remains a challenge. “The corporations still think that waste management is all about finding a plot of land where they can dump the garbage,” says Swati Singh Sambyal, programme manager at the CSE.

Cities need to break the vicious cycle of “collect, dump and incinerate,” says Ravi Aggarwal, director, Toxic Links. Instead, they should be segregate, recycle, compost, process, and dump only what cannot go anywhere else.

“If cities are serious about collecting only unmixed waste and transporting it to separate destinations for processing separately, hardly 10-15% of waste will need to go to landfills,” says Almitra Patel, member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee on solid waste management.

Wet waste can be stabilised and given away to farmers, or converted to biogas. Dry waste can be recycled. Non-recyclable plastics can be shredded for hot-mix plants to make tar roads. Combustibles can be turned into Refuse Derived Fuel used for making electricity, she adds.


The best way to manage waste is to cut its volume. Kerala is trying this under its Green Protocol, which is a set of measures aimed at reducing garbage generation by discouraging disposables and using reusable alternatives.

Citizens are being told to use steel and porcelain plates, tumblers and non-plastic tableware at weddings and social functions instead of those made out of plastic and Styrofoam. Followed for the first time at National Games 2015, now all public events have to mandatorily follow the protocol.

Segregation at source, the next step in garbage management, has failed to take off in India. The Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation had set a 2015 deadline for achieving 100% segregation by March 2015. Recently, 23,000 housing societies were sent notices for non-compliance but there were no penalties. The deadline has been pushed back to October 2017.

In Delhi, a pilot project launched by two municipal corporations this June has already lost steam. “What’s the point in asking people to segregate recyclables from non-biodegradable if you know it will all land together in the same landfill?” asks Aggarwal.

While the back-end needs to be fixed, there is also a need to incentivise segregation. “Recognise cleaner households by giving certificates, publishing their names on respective websites or reduce property tax,” says Sambyal.

The Kolkata Municipal Corporation has made a beginning by announcing plans to give exemptions on property tax to gated communities if they set up miniplants for segregation and recycling.

In the absence of compulsory segregation at households, it is the rag-pickers who segregate and sell recyclables from community bins and garbage dumps, reducing the pressure on landfills and cutting down on transportation costs.

How to reduce the garbage load
Organic: Food scraps, grass, wood, leaves
Paper: Cardboard, newspapers, bags, boxes, cups
Plastic: Bottles, packaging, containers, bags
Glass: Bottles, broken glassware, light bulbs
Metal: Cans, foil, tins, non-hazardous aerosol cans
Other: Textiles, leather, rubber, multi-laminates, e-waste, appliances, ash, cement, soil, ash, debris

But only a handful of cities have integrated this silent workforce into a formal set up. In 2005, the Pune Municipal Corporation launched a successful pilot project, engaging waste-pickers in door-to door waste collection of trash.

Today, out of the 1,700 metric tonnes of waste generated, 122 tonnes of dry waste is collected daily by ragpickers under SWACH (Solid Waste Collection and Handling Pune Seva Cooperative Limited).

Delhi, which has 40,000-50,000 wastepickers working across the city, can completely overhaul its garbage management if the municipalities include them in a safe institutional framework, says Chitra Mukherjee, head of programmes at Chintan.

“The collapse of Ghazipur landfill has shown that the centralised model of dumping has failed and must now be replaced with a system that promotes recycling and composting. The wastepickers should be employed in composting units that must be set up at dumpsites as well as in neighbourhoods. It is the best way to rehabilitate this large workforce and also decentralise waste management,” she says.

The good news is that 40–60% of India’s municipal solid waste consists of compostable matter.But to generate quality compost, municipalities have to ensure that wet waste is segregated properly. Mixed waste can add toxicity to the produce, making it harmful for agriculture or gardening.

Cities such as Bobbili in Andhra Pradesh and Alappuzha and Alleppey in Kerala are using decentralised waste management techniques such as pipe composting, bio-gas units and aerobic bins. One biogas unit can provide fuel for cooking one meal a day, says a CSE report.


All these reforms can be fast-tracked if the state governments implement the National Solid and Plastic Waste Management Rules 2016, which makes it mandatory to segregate garbage at source.

The rules propose that people pay municipal authorities for garbage management, and calls for fines and penalties for littering. But to enforce it, municipalities have to revise their existing by-laws. And that is where they drag their feet.

Delhi, for instance, had framed sanitation by-laws in 2009 but never notified those. Even now, in the midst of the worst garbage crisis it ever faced, the new rules are yet to be finalised.

But laws mean little if the citizenry is not on board. “People need to be aware that they are the generators and the generator is as much responsible for segregation, management of garbage as the authorities,” says Sambyal.

Cities which initiated reforms and found success could not have done so without the help of willing citizens. At a more fundamental level though, our lifestyles demand a rethink. We need to consume less and discard judiciously. Unless we are happy trashing the future.

(with inputs from Prachi Bari in Pune, Ramesh Babu in Thiruvananthapuram, Tanushree Venkatraman in Mumbai and Sumanta Ray Chaudhuri in Kolkata)

First Published: Sep 13, 2017 07:12 IST