Garbage disposal finds no takers for CSR

Firms are wary of working with local government bodies and find it much too expensive and time-consuming


Barely 12% of the almost 50,000 tonnes of municipal waste that India generates every day gets treated or disposed of in a scientific manner. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint
Barely 12% of the almost 50,000 tonnes of municipal waste that India generates every day gets treated or disposed of in a scientific manner. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint

“Everyone is saying Clean India, Clean India, but why are we not asking where will the garbage collected go?” asks Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International Social Services organization, pioneers of building public toilets.

Waste management and disposal feature third on the list of the Swachh Bharat Mission’s objectives, but for companies looking to spend their corporate social responsibility (CSR) funds to clean India, interest in this field is low.

“Ever since the prime minister’s announcement of achieving Swachh Bharat by 2019, we have received many queries. But all these are focused on cleaning, sweeping, removing litter and not managing or disposing waste in a sustainable manner,” says M. Chidambaram, general secretary, Exnora International, a Chennai-based not-for-profit working on environmental issues, with a special focus on waste management.

Similar queries were received by Chintan Environmental Research and Action Group, a not-for-profit that works on waste management. Bharati Chaturvedi, founder-director of Chintan believes their “awareness workshops” with companies on waste management held over the past eight months have prompted firms to look at the larger picture.

“Perhaps, one of the reasons for the lack of enthusiasm vis-à-vis waste management in the whole Swachh Bharat discourse is the fact that it is not a one-time investment like toilets. Waste management requires engaging waste generators, collectors, segregators and disposers. It is a daily activity and the process involves a long chain, unlike toilets which can be constructed and left to the community to look after,” says Almitra Patel, best known for her public interest litigation in 1996 in the Supreme Court against open dumping of municipal solid waste, which led to the formulation of the first ever Municipal Solid Waste (Management and Handling) Rules 2000 of India.

India generates almost 50,000 tonnes of municipal waste every day, according to a 2012 report from the Central Pollution Control Board. Barely 12% of this gets treated or disposed of in a scientific manner.

“While the need for waste management exists, the capital expense for it is very high as compared to building toilets. In addition, it requires constant maintenance and monitoring,” says Priya Naik, founder and joint managing director at Samhita Social Ventures Pvt. Ltd, a CSR consultancy firm. She believes that this could be one of the reasons why neither CSR money nor government initiatives have been geared towards dealing with waste management.

Patel says, “Waste is prone to the phenomenon of ‘out of sight, out of mind’. As long as it is out of my house, no one cares what really happens to it. Waste does not have the immediate visible benefits like that of toilet construction.”

But the soon-to-be notified Solid Waste Management Rules, 2015, give some hope to Chintan’s Chaturvedi. “The provision for creating material recovery facilities, decentralized composting, improving the working conditions of waste pickers with gloves, health checkups, medical claim, bio-methanation, etc., all require capital cost. And this capital cost can easily be provided for through CSR funds. Large or small companies can now tie up with the existing informal sector to help put in place processes for waste management,” she says.

Patel adds that the best way to involve the private sector under the new solid waste management rules would be for sector-specific companies to undertake initiatives to promote scientific disposal of waste. “For instance, if large builders in the country were to set up construction and demolition waste recovery facilities with their CSR money, they would be killing two birds with one arrow—ensuring scientific waste disposal as well as contributing to CSR.”

Naresh Babu, chief executive of Venerra Organic Pvt. Ltd, which manufactures composters, says the cost for installing composters, for example, is not very high. “For a composter for 100 households—with approximately 1kg of wet waste per household—the cost is about Rs.5 lakh.”

Few companies seem to be working on waste management. Citing the example of a recent experience, where Exnora, in collaboration with Deloitte Consulting India in Chennai, went to clean the Marina beach, Chidambaram says, “When dealing with waste, one has to deal with many agencies. Just to pick up litter, we had to first approach the municipal body for permission and then approach the police for permission—neither of which could assure us that permission will be given and this can be discouraging.”

Also, companies working with waste management are doing it to address a specific need. PepsiCo had been receiving a lot of flak in parts of Tamil Nadu for damaging groundwater a few years ago. In order to show its commitment to the environment, in districts such as Pammal, Chennai, Nagapattinam, Tenkasi and Cuddalore, in collaboration with Exnora, the firm started a waste collection and treatment programme called Waste to Wealth. It is a four-way partnership between PepsiCo India, Exnora, local municipal bodies and the residents. It involves door-to-door collection, segregation, composting of the organic matter and recycling of plastics and other inorganic material. The compost is sold at retail outlets.

“So far, the project had been undertaken in the sustainability budget of PepsiCo but it will be part of the CSR expenses from this year,” says Pradeep Wadhwa, director, corporate communications, PepsiCo India. He indicates PepsiCo felt it had to be engaged with local communities in Tamil Nadu where they had their plants. “Involving the people in the area of where our plants are helps to give back to the society and, therefore, we picked an activity which was the need in the area.”

The lack of involvement of the private sector with waste management can also be blamed on the difficulty of doing work with local government bodies like municipalities. A.K. Sahu, founder-president of the National Solid Waste Association of India (NSWAI), says, “Private sector involvement in waste management was encouraged by the government under the public-private partnership (PPP) model around seven-10 years ago. But all municipalities consider waste their property and through corrupt channels make a lot of money and do not want to let go of that control over waste. No private company wants to get involved after the bad experience of the PPPs.”

In addition, the involvement of a large number of stakeholders, the lack of a low-cost scalable model and the complexity of collection and disposal will continue to act as a deterrents for companies to come forward and take up waste projects, says Naik of Samhita.

That is why perhaps it would make sense for companies that truly want to commit to the Swachh Bharat aim to work towards reducing waste within their campuses. “Companies should look inwards and see how they can reduce the waste they generate. They should consider creating small composting units for wet waste and tying up with the informal sector to pick up and dispose of dry waste responsibly,” says Patel.

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