M Ramachandran: Garbage in, garbage out

M Ramachandran: Garbage in, garbage out

Last Updated: Wed, Dec 05, 2012 21:50 hrs

Today, there are at least three basic facts about the waste that we see all around us in Indian cities and towns. One, gone are the days when garbage was considered a “waste” in terms of the huge spending that local bodies had to make to collect and dispose it of. It is a resource today — a paying proposition for city bodies.

Two, there is a need for better management of waste – and as a part of a strategy – since increasing quantities of waste have various dimensions. It is not a minor subject for the cash-starved local bodies to handle; state governments need to step in actively.

Three, urban residents need to play a major role here. Various aspects of efficient waste management, such as reduction, re-use and recycling (known as the three “R”s), along with the fourth “R” of recovery, involve the residents directly. Their role has to be better understood, for which greater citizen awareness is a must, and urban bodies have to constantly equip themselves to be on top of the situation.

A 2012 World Bank report on solid waste issues points out that cities generate about 1.3 billion tonnes of waste every year globally, which is expected to go up to 2.3 billion by 2025. This means on an average, each urban resident generates 1.2 kg of waste everyday, with high income countries producing more.

As income levels go up, the per capita waste generation goes up, since consumption of inorganic materials such as plastic, paper and aluminium increases. Of estimated 160,000 million tonnes of waste generated everyday in urban India with a per capita of 0.34 kg a day, the latter will reach a level of 0.7 kg by 2025. While segregation of waste is an important aspect of waste management – since the degree of source separation has an impact on the total amount of material recycled and the quality of secondary materials – less than 30 per cent of waste gets segregated.

Let’s look at a few cities to have a better appreciation of the absence of a proper strategy of waste management. In Chennai, about 3,400 tonnes of garbage is collected daily — for which the corporation has to manage a massive fleet of 959 vehicles. Mumbai generates around 6,500 tonnes of waste a day and another 2,400 tonnes of construction and demolition waste. Of the 3,000 tonnes a day of waste in Bangalore, 1,139 tonnes are collected and dumped in open spaces or on roadsides.

No city or state is in a position to present a full analysis of the trend of different types of waste generated, and the strategy worked out for the future — both to reduce and handle the waste fully. However, data collection and continued analyses are important because different categories such as organic (food scraps, leaves, grass, wood and process dues), inorganic (paper, plastic, glass, metal and medical) and others (textiles, leather, e-waste, appliances and other inert materials) need specified ways of handling and investment.

In the midst of alarming instances of constantly increasing waste, garbage lying around in open spaces leading to serious health issues and an unclear state of strategies drawn to handle these complex issues, there are some isolated instances of new initiatives. Ahmedabad which generates 4,000 tonnes of waste everyday aims at making itself a zero waste city by 2031, involving reduced consumption, minimisation of waste, maximisation of recycling and composting, and ensuring that products and materials are designed to use less resources. Mumbai’s Gorai dumping site, where about 1,200 tonnes of garbage are dumped everyday, took the scientific closure route, as a result of which the city corporation earns carbon credits, already amounting to Rs 25 crore.

Solid waste management is an activity that can be taken up under public-private partnership (PPP). The Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission has been facilitative in this regard, and of the 45 projects worth Rs 2,086 crore in mission cities, as many as 28 are PPP projects. This is a welcome initiative as cities can even benefit by the royalty that some of these private partners will pay to the local bodies. Puducherry’s solid waste private partner brings in Rs 58 crore against a total project cost of Rs 108 crore, and undertakes activities right from door-to-door collection and street sweeping to transport and processing. Kanpur’s partner under a BOOT (build-own-operate-transfer) model undertakes composting, recycling and energy generation.

Instead of a total integrated solid waste management strategy for all the cities of a state, whereby the three “R”s are consistently practised, what we presently have is a truncated, quite often short-term approach, as the subject is left to the local bodies and the state remains aloof. Today, Kerala is a typical example of how sidelining the issue over a period of time has boomeranged on the state itself. Cities in Kerala find it difficult to discharge their mandated task of handling solid waste owing to absence of sanitary landfills, lack of adequate capacity to treat the waste (high per capita waste generation), lack of leachate treatment plants, absence of buffer zone, high organic content, high moisture content and low calorific value. Breakdown of waste management arrangements leading to heaps of garbage lying in various parts of cities for months together, mass protests taking place in various satellite villages, garbage trucks having to move under court orders and police cover have become regular features.

Vilappilsala, a village near Thiruvananthapuram, is a typical case where a 157-tonne capacity treatment plant was established, but with about 300 tonnes of garbage flowing daily, garbage piles grew, stench of rotting became unbearable, leachate from the dump yard made life miserable for the villagers and water bodies got contaminated. Ultimately, the villagers started blocking the city corporation’s garbage trucks from entering the village. Who is to be blamed?

While our cities are increasingly facing the consequences of huge garbage dumps – just because practically no city has an effective strategy to assess the increasing waste, its changing composition and methods of disposing fully – Sweden is a country with no garbage left because its efficient waste segregation and recycling system has ensured that just four per cent of the country’s waste has to reach landfill sites. How did they do it? Effective systems were put in place, a holistic approach to the entire issue was taken through policy measures and a dialogue with industry and awareness programmes were taken up. More than 90 per cent of household waste is recycled, re-used or recovered. Landfill bans and taxes were introduced. Companies were made responsible to collect the entire waste coming out of their products.

If state governments do not take stock of the types of waste, increasing volume and methods of disposal and work with local bodies, more instances like the Vilappilsala stalemate will arise, becoming a major urban disaster in the not-so-distant future.

The author is Former Secretary, Urban Development, Government of India

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