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Business News/ Opinion / First Person/  India needs collaborative solutions to tackle its growing waste problem

India needs collaborative solutions to tackle its growing waste problem

  • By 2023 the country’s urban population is expected to hit 600 million and generate 165 million tonnes of solid waste, 5-6% of which will be plastic

India's plastic waste generation is estimated at 9.4 million metric tonnes annually (Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint)

The world faces a steep challenge in the form of exponentially expanding waste. The sheer amount has reached unsustainable levels, driven by rapid urbanisation, economic growth, and shifts in patterns of consumption and expenditure.

The world faces a steep challenge in the form of exponentially expanding waste. The sheer amount has reached unsustainable levels, driven by rapid urbanisation, economic growth, and shifts in patterns of consumption and expenditure.

Inadequacies in waste-management planning results in leakages into the terrestrial and marine environments, hampering not only environmental, economic and social systems but public health and food systems as well. Plastic waste, in particular, is a key contributor to the surge in waste due to its widespread use across industries and the short lifespan of plastic products.

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Inadequacies in waste-management planning results in leakages into the terrestrial and marine environments, hampering not only environmental, economic and social systems but public health and food systems as well. Plastic waste, in particular, is a key contributor to the surge in waste due to its widespread use across industries and the short lifespan of plastic products.

Global plastic waste expected to triple by 2060

Plastic consumption across the world has quadrupled over the past few decades, and global plastic waste is expected to nearly triple by 2060, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

In India, plastic waste generation is estimated at 9.4 million metric tonnes annually, and only half of this is recycled. This is primarily done through a hybrid arrangement of formal and informal networks. The rest remains unaccounted for and is probably dumped into landfills and streams or incinerated, leading to ecological degradation, health and safety risks for informal workers, and more greenhouse gas emissions.

One must note here that consumption and plastic waste generation at the household level is a major contributor to the overall waste generated.

While policies are designed at the national, sub-national and regional levels, there is a pertinent need for local governments and regulators worldwide to engage with local actors for effective implementation, scaling up and sustaining of waste management policies and initiatives at the ground level.

With 350 million metric tons of plastic waste being generated by nations every year and a lack of cogent policy to identify key stakeholders and assigning responsibility, collaboration across the value chain is vital. Multi-stakeholder partnerships that allow amalgamation, replicability and scalability of work on the ground are needed for a subject as complex as waste management.

Mapping the roles and responsibilities of all actors in the ecosystem could help identify current competencies, coverage, gaps and interdependencies, as well as potential for collaboration and intervention.

A multi-stakeholder approach guided by a strategic and well-planned framework would also help each actor leverage their strengths, build their capacities and align their competencies.

Challenges for waste management in India

Forming such partnerships is often not a linear process, even more so for a country as dynamic as India. The institutional framework for waste management in India is divided between the Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change, which oversees the development of rules and guidelines, and the Ministry of Housing and Urban Affairs, which anchors the ground-level enforcement by guiding and supporting state governments and urban local bodies.

Since the waste ecosystem is complex and varied – including recyclers, manufacturers, brand owners, waste pickers (formal and informal), innovators, civil society, producer-responsibility organisations and consumers – it would be impossible for a single stakeholder to tackle the task at hand in isolation.

The government of India has been proactive through its flagship Swachh Bharat Mission, which emphasises collaboration among a wide range of groups, including state governments, city administrators, civil-society organisations, non-profits, the private sector, industry bodies, academia and citizens.

This enabling environment has guided stakeholders towards localised actions. To this effect, SBM Urban has emerged as a textbook case of collaboration and engagement across all levels leading to decisive impact on the ground.

SBM has achieved remarkable progress in door-to-door collection of municipal solid waste from negligible levels pre-2014 to about 94%, source segregation of waste from negligible levels to about 88%, and scientific processing of waste from under 16% to about 76%.

To sustain the momentum, local actors such as collectors, recyclers, kabadiwallahs (aggregators), civil-society organisations and waste-management agencies that have been working in the sector for years should be at the core of problem-solving.

Bottom-up approach needed

The sector requires a bottom-up approach to drive local partnerships. It is essential for policymakers to make informed decisions based on facts and develop targets that are conducive for all groups.

The sheer diversity of Indian states reiterates the need for local solutions and inputs across policy, technology, infrastructure, innovations and consumer behaviour, and inclusivity of waste-pickers. Stree Mukti Sanghatana, for example, is a Mumbai-based organisation that works with women waste-pickers, looking to empower them and help them with financial inclusion and social security.

India recently became the world’s most populous country, which means more consumption and more waste going forwards. By 2023, India’s urban population is expected to hit 600 million and generate 165 million tonnes of solid waste (5-6% of which will be plastic).

Increasing urbanisation is a growing challenge for government departments. This requires capacity building for government officials using tools designed by local actors.

Bringing in basic technology for better collection, monitoring and analysis of data is also essential. For instance, the Bhopal Municipal Corporation has developed a GPS-enabled vehicle-tracking system for door-to-door collection of waste. The collection vehicles have unique ID numbers and designated zones from which they collect waste.

Among countries in the global south, Indonesia – which generates more than 7.8 million metric tons of plastic waste, of which approximately 60% is mismanaged – has been working on a model that could mobilise public, private and community support to push for plastic waste management solutions. Similar examples can be found in Ghana, Vietnam and Nigeria.

Back in India, Maharashtra is building a locally driven partnership that could work on tangible strategies and investible action plans on waste management.

With geopolitical uncertainty, increasing risks from climate change, and communities still dealing with the complex challenges of the pandemic, such multi-stakeholder partnerships are key in today’s fragmented world.

The success of such partnerships depends on the inclusivity and acknowledgement of all local actors. The objective should be to create ‘local champions’ at every step of waste management.

Roisin Greene is head of strategy, growth and partnerships, Global Plastic Action Partnership, World Economic Forum; and Nilachal Mishra is head of government & public services, KPMG India.

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