Worthless waste that we produce

While the world tears itself apart with raging debates over the drivers of climate change and projected impacts on sustainable…

Worthless waste that we produce

While the world tears itself apart with raging debates over the drivers of climate change and projected impacts on sustainable human development, our waste just keeps piling up to turn development back a day every day. But issues of waste dig to the core of global policies such as Sustainable Development Goals (SDG: 2015-2030).

As we enter the era of SDG, WHO-UNICEF strongly emphasises on myriad impacts of ‘unsound’ waste management on global poverty (SDG 1), hunger (SDG 2), health and well-being (SDG 3), environment (SDG 6), inequality (SDG 10), responsible consumption and production (SDG 12), climate action (SDG 13), life below water (SDG 14), and life on land (SDG 15).

Climate claims the hot seat at almost every international environment-sustainability summit worldwide. But interestingly, even recent climate-change research has begun stressing heavily upon multifarious challenges ushered by the waste-climate nexus and its snowballing dimensions over time.


Findings suggest that sustainable waste management holds better promise to climate mitigation than devising expensive means to reducing methane emission from organic wastes in landfills (comprising mostly of municipal solid waste: MSW) and/or eliminating black carbon from composting.

About 10-15 per cent of global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions could potentially be checked by developing sustainable landfill mitigation/diversion techniques and using solid waste as a resource for energy generation.
Recently, Germany attributed about a quarter of its total savings in GHG emissions between 1990 and 2006 to sustainable solid waste management. It appears that incorporation of sound waste management methods in environmental protection/conservation policies could further offset the global GHG emissions by another 5-10 per cent.
Presently, the global waste sector is going through a paradigm shift. Developing economies are trying to take the notion away from ‘waste disposal’ to ‘waste management’ coupled with reversal of the basic idea from ‘wastes’ to ‘resources’ as part of their ‘circular economy’. Efforts have begun to cut off waste-generation at the very source. Studies reveal that preventing waste-generation at source yields better results than keeping wastes concentrated and isolated (still the main waste-handling method in developing nations).

Developing economies are becoming increasingly inclined towards adopting an Integrated Sustainable Waste Management (ISWM) framework, while their counterparts are still pretty lackadaisical to bringing about necessary policy reforms. The beauty of ISWM is that it takes into account the multi-dimensional aspects of the entire waste sector beginning with sound waste collection, waste treatment/disposal, to the 3Rs (Reduce-Reuse-Recycle).

In addition it explicitly acknowledges the issues of waste-governance: stakeholder inclusivity (service user/provider issues), financial sustainability (cost-effective and sustainable), and proactive reform policies (national/local). The latter includes strategic aspects of waste management, taking into stride the political, health, institutional, social, economic, environmental, and technical facets.

But how adoptable is ISWM in ‘developing’ economies? How about India? Just recently the Supreme Court has severely admonished the Central Government for permitting other nations to use our coastal waters as dumpsites for their own wastes. And then earning money in exchange.

The recent incident of a fire breaking out on Bellandur Lake (the largest in Bengaluru) – resulting from years of unregulated MSW disposal – can be a wake-up call. In fact, Bengaluru is at its tipping point. The MSW rules of 2000 mandate masonry bins to be installed at every 100-200 meters. However, in reality, most parts of the city lack this, giving rise to appalling roadside-waste-heaps.

Segregation of waste is seldom carried out and is directly transported to disposal sites, causing air pollution, emission of toxic fumes, littering, and rampant soil-water contamination. Even when segregated, waste get mixed during transportation. MSW issues in Bengaluru have reached such epic proportions that researchers of the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) believe that by 2025 the city might just be unsustainable to live in.

A recent report of the Central Pollution Control Board (CPCB) reveals that the total municipal solid waste (MSW) load has soared in 59 major cities/towns from 30 x 03 tons/day to about 50.5 x 103 tons/day between 1999-2000 and 2011-11. The report finds Delhi (6,800 tons/day) and Mumbai (6,500/tons/day) as toppers, followed by Chennai (4,500 tons/day), Bengaluru (3,700 tons/day) and Hyderabad (4,200 tons/day). In each metro, MSW-loads have grown stupendously over time with the highest ‘achieved’ by Hyderabad (168 per cent), followed by Bengaluru (85 per cent), Delhi (70 per cent), Chennai (44 per cent), and Mumbai (21 per cent). Nationwide, about 70 per cent of MSW-load is collected, of which only about 17 per cent is treated. There’s no documented record of MSW-treatment for UP, Uttarakhand, Rajasthan, Punjab, Haryana, Bihar, and most north-eastern states.  

Compared to developing economies, the waste sector in India is in its adolescence, pitted with ignorance and deplorable laid-back attitudes. Most cities/towns still lack a waste-management plan. Door-to-door MSW-collection/segregation is seldom comprehensive, even for Class-I cities. There lies a yawning gap between MSW-collection and processing. Most municipalities still lack environmentally-sustainable landfill facilities, and resort to unregulated dumping. Waste-collection-segregation statistics for most municipalities are rarely available online.
During 2010-‘11, only 22 out of 34 SPCB/PCCs had submitted their Annual Reports to the CPCB which underscores the lack of concern, awareness and initiative.

The fundamental hitch in contemplating ISWM for India is utter lack of willingness of our authorities to deliberate on its multi-dimensional strategic aspects. ISWM is not a standalone process but an intricate web of several sectors. But a nation where inter-sector frictions are a norm, can we aspire to adopt such a rigorously collaborative framework where multiple sectors will overlap and complement each other? 

What are the consequences? Three of 50 largest dumpsites in the world are located in India. We rank 3rd on MSW-generation. About 85 per cent of MSW-disposal methods in India are deemed ‘unsound’. The fastest growing economy of the world is also among the largest producers of the worthless.
The writers are, respectively, Assistant Director, Centre for Environment and Sustainable Global Development, Jindal School of Liberal Arts and Humanities, Sonipat and a student of the O P Jindal Global Law School. Some of the data is sourced from the Global Waste Monitoring Outlook 2014 and Global Waste Atlas 2015