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India and solid waste management: Possibilities ahead

Aug 20, 2018

This inefficiency in solid waste management is damaging our sustainability levels, waste workers’ health and public health.

New Delhi: Waste is defined as ‘unwanted, unusable material or a by-product’. In simpler terms - that which has no further purpose to us. Those of us living in urban or semi-urban cities enjoy the privilege of not worrying about our household waste. Usually the local municipality sends a door-to-door collector and we hand over our waste to them. As a result, we are ignorant of the extent of the waste management problem in India. How much of waste are we producing per day, per week, per year? Where is it all going? What about non-biodegradable materials like plastic, rubber, Styrofoam? What happens after we empty our dustbins?

India and sustainability

Sustainable development is the development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. There was a time when humans lived simple lives that were more harmonious with nature. We foraged, hunted and lived on bare essentials needed for survival. But our ability to innovate and progress has brought us to a point where we are indulging in reckless consumption and consequent wastage.

India’s situation as the second most populated country (and still growing rapidly) is alarming. Our GDP is growing and sadly, so is our garbage. We are the third largest producer of waste, generating over 150,000 tons of municipal solid waste a day. Sixty major cities in India produce about 3,500 tons of plastic every day. Despite being a nation where the concept of jugaad (being resourceful) originated, we haven’t been able to crack this massive hurdle.

Current SWM (Solid waste management)

Municipal authorities are responsible for establishing an infrastructure for - collection, storage, segregation, transportation, processing and disposal of municipal solid waste (household waste and commercial waste). However, there is still a huge portion (more than 80%) of collected waste that is dumped directly into the landfills or at unauthorized sites haphazardly. These piles of garbage are often sifted through the manually by rag pickers who risk their own health to collect items that can be re-used or recycled.

This inefficiency is damaging our sustainability levels, waste workers’ health and public health. Research shows that if we continue to dump untreated garbage at the current rate, then we will need a landfill the size of Bangalore by 2030.

Major overhaul needed

The overflowing landfills produce hazardous toxins that enter the atmosphere, soil and water system thereby affecting the air we breathe, the food we eat and the water we drink. Burning garbage increases particulate matter concentrations that lead to major respiratory illnesses, especially among children. Stagnating waste gives rise to diseases like dengue, cholera and other infections that are spread by mosquito’s rodents. Like a vicious circle, it all comes back to us.

India cannot afford to spend most of its solid waste management budget merely on collection and disposal. It must devise scientific methods that address the problem both at two key junctures- reducing generated waste by driving awareness and innovation through treatment plants to ensure minimal residue goes to landfill. Waste has great energy potential and we need more proper functioning Waste to Energy, biogas and composting plants.

Anti-Pollution Drive (APD)

APD is a non-profit organization that has worked in the public health space by taking action to mitigate air pollution and facilitate effective waste management in Mangaluru city. Over the past four years, they have partnered with the urban local body and hundreds of volunteers. They stress on the pivotal role that IEC (Information, Education & Communication) plays in enabling behavior change. Once an individual truly grasps the impact of their lifestyle on the environment and their health, they will be motivated to re-evaluate their waste habits.

As Indians, we need to move away from taking it for granted that waste is an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ issue. It is a collective responsibility. There are several initiatives each of us can take to do our bit that will eventually add up to change:

  • If you aren’t already, segregate your waste. This is the biggest cog in the SWM wheel!

  • Contribute your time to volunteer on projects with organizations like APD. There are so many ways you can help depending on your own skill-set and which activity you are passionate about. (Project examples- Plant trees, clean beaches, collect research data, mall activation programs, training)

  • Avoid using disposable plastic containers, bottles, and straws and invest in steel or other durable materials.

  • Give composting a go - you play a part in reducing landfill space and get manure as a by-product.

  • Collect cartons and newspapers and give them to your domestic help or the local paperboy.

  • If an appliance or household item gets broken, try to fix it instead of buying a new one.

  • Education can play a huge role in change; take part in a rally, volunteer to organize green activities for children, teach them to care about nature.

  • Speak to policy makers on where public awareness is missing and start your own campaigns.

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