In 2016, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change notified that India produces 62 million tonnes of waste annually, out of which only 12 million tonnes are treated. A whopping 31 million tonnes are dumped in landfill sites. The rest remains uncollected. To put it in perspective, the amount that is dumped in landfills in a single year could fill up 14,400 Olympic size pools if reduced to a liquid form.
Most landfills in urban cities have been functioning way beyond their limit. These overflowing garbage-dumping sites pose a health hazard not just for residential settlements around them but also for the air and water resources that are polluted by the fumes and gases released from these sites. In the capital city itself, both major landfills sites, Gazipur and Balsawa, exhausted their lifespan more than a decade ago, but they continue to be exploited.
The waste generated throughout the country, especially in major cities, has been steadily rising. Solid waste generation in Delhi alone has escalated from 6,800 tonnes per day (tpd) in 2010-2011 to 8,700 tpd in 2015-2016. This is a steep 28 per cent rise over five years in waste generated per day.
Continued use of the existing landfills or even identifying alternate sites can no longer be the answer. There is pressing need to effectively treat, dispose and minimize waste at the source.
Biodegradable waste is mixed with non-biodegradable plastic, chemical and e-waste and other recyclable materials such as paper and metal. This waste that ends up in landfills, if segregated, has the potential to be optimally used.
Biodegradable waste could be composted and sold as manure. The methane generated in the composting process could be used as a source of renewable fuel. Segregated non-recyclable plastic could be used in road construction.
Metals and most plastics could be recycled. A 2014 report of a Task Force on Waste to Energy suggested that almost 450MW of untapped power could be generated from combustible renewables and waste each day[AR1] .
Another concern with the mixing of waste during non-segregated waste dumping arises because of increased generation of hazardous waste. Wastes such as syringes, bulbs, batteries and e-waste from discarded electronics constitute almost 12 per cent of the total waste generated in India annually. Such hazardous wastes are dumped along with biodegradable and recyclable matter, and their emanations are harmful to health.
The urgency to segregate waste is clear. The present government has time and again made efforts towards effective waste management. Waste management was made an integral part of the Swachh Bharat Campaign and multiple projects of waste segregation were implemented in select localities. The waste management rules were appraised and revised: Solid Waste Management (SWM) Rules, 2016 were adopted.
The SWM Rules make it the duty of the ‘waste generator’ to segregate waste into biodegradable, non-biodegradable and hazardous waste. The rules also specify particular duties for state functionaries to undertake waste-to-energy projects, and to provide guidelines and capacity support for composting to achieve optimal waste use.
The National Green Tribunal, in the case of Almitra H. Patel v. Union of India, stipulated that waste segregation at source, conforming to the SWM Rules, is mandatory. Stressing the public health hazards that arise with indiscriminate dumping in ill-maintained landfills, the Tribunal restated all duties specified by the SMW Rules of 2016. It declared that all violators of the 2016 rules must pay for environmental compensation and could be imprisoned. Despite all these efforts, the annual report on implementation of SWM Rules 2015-2016 indicated an abysmal level of conformity.
The central government must stop trying to implement waste segregation unilaterally. Local citizens must unreservedly adopt the idea of solid waste segregation at the source. The state must shift its efforts from attempts to employ policies in select localities to widespread capacity building.
Compost plants must be built in every locality; the number of waste to energy plants must be increased substantially; and all waste collection vehicles must be equipped to separate wet waste, dry waste and hazardous waste. Citizens are the biggest beneficiaries of improved air and water resources, reduced risks to public health and enhanced aesthetics of the cities. Accordingly, they must step up to demand minimisation and segregation of waste at the source.
The writers are, respectively, a third-year law student and professor of law at the Jindal Global University, Sonipat.