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Analysis of Down to Earth Magazine: ”Towards Zero Waste”


As per UNEP, the urban population, as a proportion of the overall population, is expected to rise to 70 per cent by 2050, by which time the world’s cities will be generating 75 per cent of global waste and greenhouse gas emissions.

What strategy should India adopt on waste management?

  • INDIA is rapidly evolving its policies to deal with garbage—the waste generated from the use of materials at homes, institutions and factories. The evolution must now reflect in our actions.
  • Our “waste” must become a resource—to be reworked, reused and upcycled. This will minimise the use of materials in our world and mitigate environmental damage. It’s a win-win solution
  • We know that the “nature” of solid waste changes as societies get richer and urbanise. Instead of biodegradable (wet) waste, households generate more plastic, paper, metal and other non-biodegradable (dry) waste. The quantity of waste generated on a per capita basis also increases.
  • The good news is that India’s solid waste management strategy is now being designed for material recovery and reuse. It is an approach aimed at a truly circular economy.
  • As the strategy demands full reutilisation of materials and no waste, we will learn what we cannot recycle and work towards minimising its use. This will make policy and practice even more environment friendly. That said, while the policy has evolved, our practice is still to catch up.

Rising Waste Generation 

  • Many of the country’s urban areas are already on the trajectory where waste generation has risen exponentially.
  • In 2000, when the first Municipal Solid Wastes Rules were notified they were based on the idea—prevalent in most countries—that waste had to be collected, transported and then disposed of in secure landfill sites.
  • The objective was to “clean” cities by removing waste from our vicinity. But this policy failed to reflect in practice and the scourge of garbage grew in our cities.

Union government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2.0 and waste management

  • Today’s policy, the Union government’s flagship Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) 2.0, focuses on source segregation, processing of waste (wet and dry) and on minimising the waste sent to sanitary landfill sites.
  • According to the guidelines of SBM 2.0, only the inert waste and process rejects, which in no case should exceed 20 per cent of the total waste and are not suitable for either dry or wet waste treatment, can be sent to landfill sites.
  • Therefore, the premise of the guidelines is that cities must become zero-landfill—they must recover and reprocess all waste.
  • The guidelines stress that waste-to-energy (wte) projects are financially and operationally viable only with an assured minimum input of 150-200 tonnes per day of non-recyclable, segregated dry waste of high calorific value.
  • This has also been our learning that wte plants are not the silver bullets they promise to be—incinerating municipal waste to make energy.
  • It is critical that the waste sent for incineration and energy generation is of high quality and this requires high level of segregation—best done at source.
  • Without this, the plants work below operational capacity and become defunct.
  • The guidelines also provide an opportunity to reclaim the 3,000-odd landfill sites where, as per the Central Pollution Control Board (cpcb), some 800 million tonnes of waste is dumped. This will not just free up valuable land, which can be greened and put to suitable use, but also help avert environmental disasters. This requires deliberately designed strategies to reuse the material that is bio-mined from these legacy landfills. Cities must also stop sending new waste to these landfills, otherwise they will get filled up again even while being remediated.

COVID-19 and challenges of Solid Waste Management

  • COVID-19 has not only burdened the health infrastructure of our cities but the pandemic has further amplified the challenges of waste management.
  • Increased use of PPEs such as disposable masks, protection kits including cleaning supplies, alcohol-based sanitisers, as well as the purchase and consumption of canned and packaged food, has created many tonnes of additional waste, much of it hazardous.
  • But this also raises the need for our cities to have effective systems in place that are resource-efficient, circular, and inclusive.

How can cities adapt zero waste concepts?

  • By shifting to zero waste strategies, municipalities can immediately begin reducing the costs of their waste management and device steps that focus on rethinking and reinventing waste management.
  • To start with, make segregation mandatory not optional. As per the Solid Waste Management Rules, 2016, every generator needs to segregate waste into wet (biodegradable), dry (non-biodegradable) and domestic hazardous waste.
  • To mainstream segregation and focus on waste reduction at source, price incentives can be explored as a key driver of behaviour. For instance, in countries such as Sweden, South Korea, excessive generation of waste is disincentivised as citizens pay more user-fee over those who generate less.
  • Also, unique initiatives like the one being practised in Mangaluru could be explored, wherein there is a 50 per cent concession on property tax for households that segregate and compost their waste, also mixed waste is not collected.
  • These efforts must be complemented with continuous advocacy and awareness such as by focusing on ward-level committees that monitor and supervise segregation at source.
  • Creating a segregation incentive system will ensure maximum recovery of wet and dry waste and ensure that minimum goes to the landfills.
  • Setting up effective collection and transportation (C&T) systems to support segregation, end to end, right from collection, processing to disposal. This will help in reducing contamination of resources (especially dry waste) and will further create systems so that resources could be reutilised and recycled.
  • Also, increasing collection efficiency in cities by route optimisation will also help in saving resources such as fuel. This has been explored in cities such as Surat (Gujarat), Indore, (Madhya Pradesh), and Nagpur (Maharashtra). Further, a robust Management Information System (MIS) to enhance accountability and transparency and to get data on percentage of waste segregated, collected and processed, for instance in the case of Vijayawada in Andhra Pradesh.
  • Build systems for maximum resource recovery in cities. Change the infrastructure in line with the new paradigm to support maximum resource recovery with a phase-out plan from being heavily dependent on disposal infrastructures such as landfills or incinerators.
  • Create decentralised infrastructure, wherever applicable to reduce costs on C&T. In the long term, over 50 per cent savings in C&T have been observed in cities that have moved to decentralised systems for instance (eg: Alappuzha, Kerala, Ambikapur, Chattisgarh).
  • Further, cities can encourage residents, bulk generators to treat wet waste at the source and may consider creating systems for subsidies and incentives for adoption of decentralised technologies such as biomethanisation, composting etc.
  • Composting has a huge potential to reduce and upcycle waste into fertilisers that remains untapped. Compost as a service can be provided in cities.
  • Going further, create market linkages for compost. Arrange a system to procure compost and give coupons that can be used in all milk booths/grocery counters or similar outlets.
  • On a trial basis, this model can be run in a few RWAs/societies in each local authority. Also, urban local bodies can provide a list of local vendors and technologies available to manage resources on their website so that information is easily accessible
  • Additionally, impose a landfill/incineration tax per tonne of waste disposed/incinerated in order to reduce dependence on land, and disincentivise dumping and waste incineration.
  • Lastly, integrating city-specific local sanitation and solid waste management byelaws with a zero-waste strategy incorporating various steps that will help in transforming the city into a zero-waste city.

It is the right time when cities should commit to becoming zero waste, as this will also give urban local bodies an opportunity in showcasing their leadership and willingness to tackle the existential threat that climate change poses, by helping to support maximum resource recovery (over 80 per cent), empower livelihoods and make resource management wealth-generating.

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